- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan | Situated along the dusty outskirts of Helmand’s capital, the newly built madrassa sits like an island between opposing armadas.

On one side: Reformists who want to remake Afghanistan into a modern state while maintaining its identity as a deeply pious Islamic republic.

On the other: Militants who are resistant to modernity and unwilling to compromise their interpretations of Islam.

The government-run Central Darul Hifaz madrassa, or religious school, is hardly alone in that it is caught between two very different Afghanistans.

All across Helmand, a powder-keg southern province that borders the far southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, groups are struggling to reconcile, unite and rebuild institutions and infrastructure after more than 30 years of war.

At the same time, the region faces the buildup of U.S. and international troops and predictions of an intensified conflict as the Taliban refortifies itself here and across great swaths of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The only way to solve our problems is to unite Afghans,” says the madrassa’s 28-year-old headmaster, Hafiz Abdul Hadi. “This means everyone: the Taliban, the government and the tribes.”

Education in Afghanistan and Pakistan is complicated and leaves most children behind.

While some schools here in Lashkar Gah must deal with a surge in students from rural areas, where buildings have been destroyed or forcibly closed by the Taliban, a relatively small percentage of children provincewide ever make it into a classroom. According to the provincial education office, the number of students attending schools last year dropped by more than half, to 54,000. There are an estimated 245,000 youths in Helmand.

Central Darul Hifaz is one of the few madrassas here to provide classes in math, science and literature, in addition to the traditional religious instruction, which is seen as one way to get more students into school because, as Mr. Hadi says, “the Taliban and the government both approve of this type of education.”

The school day runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday through Thursday. During a recent visit, about 25 young men and boys with prayer caps atop their heads sat against a cement wall along a red carpeted floor. They perched over Korans that sat on low wooden desks. Many of the students swayed in rhythm to the verses they were reciting in classical Arabic as sunlight streamed into the room.

The madrassa originally was founded in Baluchistan in southwestern Pakistan by displaced Afghans in the 1990s. It was relocated and opened in Lashkar Gah last June. Helmand’s governor, Gulab Mangal, says the government invested the equivalent of about $48,000 to rebuild it to introduce a more moderate interpretation of Islam in an attempt to help stem extremism in the region.

The madrassa is free to students, and even provides room and board for 700 of its 1,000 students in the first through seventh grades. The boarding option is attractive to many because it also removes some of the financial strains families face just feeding everyone.

Most pupils come from impoverished towns and villages across Helmand, and the school’s staff of about 40 teachers is aware militants may try to enlist some of the students to take up arms against the government when they return home.

“Of course, we worry that they may be recruited to fight once they return to their villages,” Mr. Hadi said. “We try to teach them that the gun is not the solution.” Teachers also worry their students won’t find work after leaving school or graduating the 12th grade, given an estimated unemployment rate in the country of at least 40 percent.

“I don’t believe the government can provide jobs for them after they finish their studies,” said Hafiz Abdul Sabud, an Islamic studies teacher. Some students at the madrassa echo similar concerns and question the effectiveness of their country’s leaders.

“The government must work harder to improve life in the country,” said 19-year-old Abdul Kakim, who has only reached the seventh grade because of war and poverty. “They need to increase the number of jobs and opportunities for education.”

Meanwhile, armed insurgent groups continue to seize and control pockets of rural areas where the government has little or no influence, while seemingly striking at will in more populated centers where Afghan forces maintain a high profile, such as the country’s capital, Kabul, and provincial centers across the nation.

The fighting and insecurity are obstacles for students and teachers to pursue their work.

“It’s difficult to manage when all is wrong and not good,” Mr. Sabud said. “But our study of the Koran provides some peace of mind.” Many of the madrassa’s students have been displaced from their homes by ongoing fighting and have found not only a place to continue their studies, but a safe haven.

“There are no opportunities to attend school back home,” 15-year-old Mohammed Addris, who is in seventh grade, said about his village in Helmand’s Nawa-i-Barakzayi district. “I’m afraid to return home. I have no expectations the fighting will end anytime soon.” Somehow, though, the students seem able to focus on their course work.

“They are just like pupils in any other school,” said Mehrabdin Pajhwak, 30, a math and English teacher at the madrassa. “They are anxious and motivated to learn.”

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