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New Afghan Textbooks Sidestep History

A controversial new official Afghan history textbook will not cover the divisive events of the past four decades
Afghanistan's recent history is comparable to a war epic -- a story encompassing four decades of foreign invasions, civil war, and political turmoil.

How that story is told, however, has proved highly controversial, with the country's rival ethnic and political groups writing their own accounts of history, shaped by their own ideologies, and with their own villains and heroes.

Now Afghan officials think they have found a way to teach the country's contentious history that is acceptable to all Afghans regardless of their politics, ethnicity, or religion.

The answer, they say, is to omit the past four decades from the history books.

As of the next school year, which begins this spring, the Afghan government plans to distribute textbooks to high school students that do not mention the Soviet invasion, the country's devastating civil war, the reign of the extremist Taliban regime, the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and the international presence that continues today.

The Afghan Education Ministry says the textbook, the only one to be officially approved by the government, is part of a new nonpolitical curriculum.

It is part of an initiative launched three years ago that has seen the government distribute books which avoid contentious recent history to some elementary and secondary schools around the country.

Unifying National Identity

Education officials say the new textbook was funded by the Afghan government and various foreign donors. The U.S. military's foreign aid arm, the Commander's Emergency Response Program, is reportedly among the donors, although RFE/RL was unable to independently verify the information despite numerous attempts.

The textbooks will be printed mainly in India and Afghanistan.

Mohammad Asef Nang, the Afghan deputy minister of education, is hopeful that the new textbooks will help create a single national identity, particularly among younger generations.

"History should build and heal a generation, not destroy one," he said. "History should reflect the truth and the honor of the country. Those parts of history that provoke old rivalries and enmities and destroy national unity shouldn't be included. Empty pages are better than pages that are full of animosities."

Although the move has received some support within the government, it has been vehemently opposed by the public.

'Shirking Educational Responsibilities'

Those who are against the move accuse the government of attempting to hide the crimes of warlords and militia leaders who were active in the country's civil war and some of whom today hold government positions.

Meanwhile, others accuse the Education Ministry of failing to fulfill its educational responsibilities.

Elay Ershad, a female member of parliament, believes the country needs to acknowledge its past and learn from it so it does not make the same mistakes again.

"The Education Ministry shouldn't think in such a short-sighted and pessimistic way about recording this history," she says. "The source of history should be based on the events that happened and the realities. Knowing history will enable us to control what happens in the future. We know that yesterday is what makes today and today is what makes tomorrow."

Ershad adds that Afghanistan's youths have a right to know their history and denying them that right is a disservice.

"Our children and young people should have full knowledge of what happened," she said. "The Education Ministry has no authority to brainwash people and keep them in the dark. Thank god we have the media and our history books so that people will know their history."

The move has also angered some of the country's educators. Schoolteachers like Abdullah, who only gave his first name, maintain that the younger generation has the right to make its own evaluations of the country's recent history.

"Documenting what has happened in the past is a positive thing," he said. "Future generations, when they study history, will know who served the country and who betrayed it."

Battleground For Competing Propaganda

Over the past four decades, Afghanistan's educational system has gone through dramatic changes, many of which accompanied the evolving political climate.

Afghan officials say that Afghan classrooms have at times been a battleground for competing propaganda.

During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, textbooks preaching communism were printed and taught in schools.

That was countered by U.S.-sponsored books which promoted resistance to the Soviet Union and communism. During Taliban rule, schoolbooks endorsed ideas of jihad, or holy war.

The decision to create and distribute the new history textbook to high-school students comes after almost a decade of debate among politicians, historians, and educators.

Officials concluded that the only way to resolve the stalemate would be to have the text's take on history stop in the early 1970s, before the monarchy in Afghanistan was overthrown.

The sticking point was always how to address the country's subsequent civil war and various groups that fought in it, with officials unable to agree or compromise as to how they should be represented in educational material.

Officials say, for example, that a reference to former Uzbek warlord and current military chief of staff Abdul Rashid Dostum, or former Tajik and Northern Alliance leader Barhanuddin Rabbani, would draw equal measures of fierce anger and allegiance in a single classroom.

Dozens of Afghan education officials are now in the difficult process of persuading students, parents, and teachers to accept the new textbook.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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