FATA, Pakistan -- As the fight against terrorism in Pakistan's restive northwest rages on, one casualty has been left on the battlefield -- youth education.
Schools are a popular target for militants, often because they educate girls or because their curriculum is not considered Islamic enough for the Pakistani Taliban, which wields significant influence in the region.
The situation is most dire in the semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), situated along Pakistan's northwestern border with Afghanistan. In recent years, nearly 450 schools have been destroyed there, according to Fazlullah, spokesman for the FATA Secretariat.
That number equates to the destruction of nearly one of every 10 schools in FATA, based on figures compiled by the International Crisis Group, which estimated the region had 4,660 primary schools in 2008. Even schools that have not been harmed physically are under the threat of attack, leading students to stay home. And the problem is compounded by the large-scale displacement of people fleeing the militants and the government's efforts to fight them.
The result is that students in FATA are being left with no place to study. And as key indicators like literacy rates fall, the fear is that local youth will be denied the chance to escape the cycle of violence and will themselves be recruited by militants.
"Not going to school," explains Asifullah, a fifth-grader from Mohmand Agency. "We are hanging out with friends and wasting our time."
Azizur Rahman, a resident of Bara, in FATA's Khyber Agency, says children whose schools have been destroyed now busy themselves stealing chickens and selling them at the market.
And Khalid, a third-grade student in the Charmang area of Bajaur Agency whose school was destroyed this spring, says he and his classmates are forced to study under the open sky.
Education officials have offered assurances that schools will be rebuilt and have vowed to beef up security, but those efforts are in the crosshairs as well.
In the first two weeks of September alone, at least three government schools have been attacked in FATA, including one that was being reconstructed.
Locals and students inspect the ruins of a government girls high school destroyed by the Taliban in Bajaur Agency in June.
The continued attacks have prompted education officials to offer assurances that funds will be allocated for their reconstruction, but meanwhile the number of destroyed schools keeps growing.
"We can't say how many schools in FATA are still in good condition," spokesman Fazlullah says, but he can easily rattle off figures for those that have been destroyed in various FATA areas: 68 boys and 26 girls schools in Bajaur Agency; 66 boys and 23 girls schools in Mohmand Agency; and 31 boys and 27 girls schools in Khyber Agency.
Asked what the authorities are doing to alleviate the problem, he notes that 77 schools have been reconstructed with assistance from foreign donors and funds allocated from the government's annual developmental program. Another 25 schools, he tells RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal, are slated for repair under next year's budget and additional funding is being sought from the central government or foreign donors.
He also says the government has deployed security forces in different parts of FATA to ensure that schools are safe, and more troops are to come. During a recent security meeting in Peshawar, Minister for States and Frontier Regions Shaukatullah Khan and FATA officials approved the deployment of an additional 10,000 paramilitary personnel to help protect schools.
Is Government Doing Enough?
Despite these steps both the local and central governments have failed to escape criticism that they are not doing enough, and even allegations that the government itself has a stake in the destruction of schools.
Locals frequently accuse the local and central governments of seeking to keep residents of Pakistan's tribal regions down, so they can exploit them later. Some attribute the attacks to "an invisible hand." Others see the Pakistani Taliban as taking its orders from Pakistan's security service. Some simply side with the Taliban.
FATA spokesman Fazlullah strongly denies that the local government has any role in the school attacks, arguing that many members of the tribal police have lost their lives protecting schools. He blames foreign militants, even though the Pakistani Taliban has taken credit for the attacks.
Students and a teacher of a destroyed girls school in Bajaur Agency hide their faces from the camera.
In a interview with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal in June, Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan said schools would continue to be targeted because they were "un-Islamic."
"Through the current education system, un-Islamic culture and vulgarity are spreading in an Islamic society," Ihsan said. If the Pakistani Taliban gains more power, he promised, "we will have an alternative education system that will be good for Muslims and Islam."
Dismissing the notion that the violence is harming ordinary citizens, he added, "We consider our activities beneficial because they are good for them in the afterlife."