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The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, known simply as “Afghanistan” in unofficial circles,” is a proud, ancient and strategically located country in Central Asia—a landlocked country that serves as a connection between the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The population of Afghanistan is roughly 29 million, making the country the 42nd most populous in the world, and its total land area, which currently ranks 42nd, is just over 250,000 miles.
Brief History of Afghanistan
Although the history of Afghanistan is vast, with urban civilizations dating back as far as 2,000 BC, its political history technically began in 1709, the year the Pashtuns came to power and established the Hotaki Dynasty. In 1776, the capital of Afghan Empire switched from Kandahar to Kabul, and in 1893, part of its land was ceded to neighboring empires. A buffer country in what was known as the “Great Game” between the British and Russian Empires, Afghanistan would finally, in 1919, regain control of its foreign policy from the British following the third Anglo-Afghan War and the ratification of the Treaty of Rawalpindi. Peace in Afghanistan would be short-lived, however, and remains today. For decades now, dating back to the 1979 Soviet Invasion to the present war with NATO forces, Afghanistan has been a country ravaged by war.
Demographics and Culture
In terms of demographics, Afghanistan is very diverse and is home to many different ethnic groups, including its two largest groups—the Pashtuns and Tajiks—who make up nearly 70 percent of the population. Dari (Persian) and Pashto are the country’s two official languages, and 99% of the country’s population is Muslim. Due to years of continuous war, Afghanistan is among the poorest countries in the world by GDP, with almost no foreign investment. Despite these dire times, the Afghani people continue to take great pride in their culture, religion and independence, sometimes to a fault. They are known for their personal honor and tribe loyalty, qualities perhaps best evidenced by their readiness to use force when settling disputes.
Education in Afghanistan
Much like other countries in the region, the educational system in Afghanistan, which includes primary and secondary levels along with higher education, is overseen by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education respectively. Primary school consists of Grades 1-8, and includes the pre-primary grade of kindergarten. Secondary schools are split between general education, for students preparing for university admission, and vocational education, a track that leads to a career that’s important to the Afghan economy.
Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan is considered the hub for higher education, but there are also universities located in the cities of Kandahar, Nagarhar, Balkh and Heart among others. The country offers Bachelor, Master’s and Doctorate Degrees in most major academic fields, including, but not limited to, engineering, education, medicine and law.
After decades of war, the educational system in Afghanistan was all but destroyed, but in the ten years since the Taliban fell and President Karzai was elected in 2001 the system has undergone an impressive makeover, one that resulted in over 5,000 new schools being built and over 100,000 teachers recruited and trained. Current estimates suggest that more than 7 million Afghani students are enrolled in the country’s primary and secondary schools and 82,000 students are pursuing degrees at its universities.
Despite these improvements, the Afghan educational system still faces many challenges, including:
- Violence. Education means progress, which makes its institutions a prime target for violence. From 2006-2009, nearly 450 teachers and students were killed and thousands more were injured.
- Shortage of Qualified Teachers. While the demand for education is rising in Afghanistan, there still remains a shortage of qualified teachers at all levels.
- No Standardized Curriculum. While Afghan schools no longer teach the extremist Islamic curriculum of the Taliban, there has yet to be a standardized curriculum developed in the country. In addition, there is a major shortage of textbooks, particularly at the secondary level.
- Child Labor. War has changed the demographics of Afghanistan dramatically, and today more than half of the Afghani population is under 18, many of whom are forced to work to help their families financially. This not only applies to potential secondary school students, but to younger children as well. In 2011, an estimated 25 percent of all children ages 7-14 were working full-time.
For all of these reasons and more, the literacy rate in Afghanistan is a woeful 21 percent overall, and as low as 10 percent for females. To help combat this problem, the United States has started to establish learning centers throughout the country; centers where students can receive English language instruction, and gain access to library facilities and the Internet. The U.S. is also building six schools of education and five provincial teacher training colleges throughout the country to help better prepare the current and next generation of teachers.