After a decade of war, the word "transition" now punctuates reports about Afghanistan's international partners as they prepare to draw down their military presence in the country, and transfer security responsibility to the government of Afghanistan.
This process is under way and should be completed by the end of 2014. For this process to succeed in the long term, however, it is important that more attention be placed on democracy and development. And the best way to do this is by investing in building a strong education sector to ensure the irreversibility of the transition process.
The international community is overly focused on the military transition; this is understandable after 10 years of war. But Afghans themselves feel this has come at the expense of the next generation. Without a productive economy based on an educated labour force, Afghanistan will be unable to modernise and maintain a fully professional volunteer military to defend the country. And shortchanging the development priorities of Afghanistan is a sure way of undermining present stabilisation efforts and gradually undoing gains in the security sector.
It is a universal fact that education constitutes the backbone of any peaceful and prosperous society. Without education and employment opportunities, the continued expansion of Afghanistan's "youth bulge" will provide a fertile ground for organised crime and violent extremism to flourish, thereby endangering peace and security.
Without educated citizens the values of democracy and liberty will not be institutionalised to ensure protection of the basic human rights of the Afghan people - particularly women, who suffered most under the Taliban.
In 2002, after a decade of state failure, the newly established Afghan government inherited a completely obsolete and dysfunctional education system. A country of some 30 million people, 70 per cent of whom were below the age of 25, had less than one million students attending 3,400 crumbling schools. Some 20,000 teachers, mostly male, used to teach with substandard textbooks, or lectured from outdated notes handed down from the past.
The number of students at Afghanistan's once vibrant teacher-training colleges had decreased to 400, while only 1,500 students were enrolled in technical and vocational schools, which lacked electricity, basic facilities or instruments for students to use in learning any major skills. At the same time, religious schools, or madrasas, were gaining prominence, though they lacked a formal curriculum to provide the students with progressive education in Islam.
Moreover, enrolment in tertiary or higher education had been deteriorating since the early 1990s, when Afghanistan had some 24,000 university students. By 2001, the total number of students had fallen to just under 8,000. The enrolment rate in tertiary education was among the lowest in the world, with less than 2 per cent of the population over 25 years of age having any higher education.
Today, these trends have reversed. Thanks to government efforts with international aid, Afghanistan has seen a significant increase in the enrolment of students, while the recruitment and training of male and female teachers, and the reconstruction or construction of schools across the country, continues. This combined progress has allowed nearly 7 million children, including 2.5 million girls, to go back to school.
With the direct assistance and participation of the Afghan people, who continue to contribute their private land and volunteer their time to build new schools in their respective communities, over 4,500 school buildings have been constructed, each equipped with basic learning and recreational facilities.
The number of teachers has increased eight-fold to 170,000, some 30 per cent of whom are women. To meet the increasing demand for access to education, Afghanistan now boasts 42 teacher training centres, at least one in each of the country's 34 provinces. Adults are attending literacy training programmes, higher education enrolments are up and more people than ever are training to become teachers.
However, these major gains in the education sector remain very much a work in progress; Afghanistan needs long-term financial and technical assistance to consolidate and sustain them.
The Ministry of Education is unable to pay the salaries of its teachers, while of the roughly 14,000 primary and secondary schools in the country, some 7,000 lack buildings. This forces children to study outdoors under trees and in tents. The higher education sector is under even greater stress. The total budget allocated to operate 22 universities in 2009 was $35 million (Dh128.5 million) averaging about $1.5 million per institution. No university can provide quality education with such limited resources.
The international community must balance their military and civilian assistance to Afghanistan in order to ensure the long-term success of the transition process. Focusing on its military transition alone is like putting the cart before the horse. This counterproductive momentum must be reversed. Investing in the education of Afghans must top the transition agenda.
Without institutionalised peace through education, we will have collectively failed the Afghan people, who continue to bear the brunt of ongoing conflicts and violence. Now is the time to change course and move in the right direction for securing Afghanistan's future.
M Ashraf Haidari is the Deputy Assistant National Security Advisor of Afghanistan.