Laura Cesaretti Silab Mangal

Graffiti on the walls of a high school in Afghanistan’s Achin district, some 10km from the Pakistani border, reads: “Islamic Governorate of Khorasan.” Until a short time ago, the voices of diligent students, whose aim is to progress to Nangarhar University in Jalalabad, the provincial capital, were absent here. Instead, the school, financed by the Afghan government and newly painted blue, was home for eight months to many of the Islamic State’s Wilayat Khorasan fighters, the Asian faction of IS now seeking to establish itself in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of other central Asian countries. The fighters took issue, in particular, with what they decried as the school’s role in training future government employees. 

The Wilayat Khorasan fighters made their first appearance in Afghanistan in 2014, but solidified their presence, and their abuse of the local population, in 2015. The eastern part of Afghanistan, and in particular Nangharah province, has been the most affected by the group’s nascent rise. Last August, according to Tolo News, a local news organization, at least six schools in the Achin and Momand Dara areas were closed by IS. During our visit, local sources put the number higher, naming some 17 schools – three high schools and 14 elementary schools – shuttered by IS. 

“They entered while I was listening to music and pointed a gun at me,” said Baba, the watchman at a school in Desharak village. It was a stark interruption from his nightly routine: standing guard alone, looking out over the varying landscape of sandy hills and fertile, green fields, while listening to music. The IS fighters smashed his radio and kicked him out of the school, forcing him to flee without packing his clothes, his prayer rug or other personal affects. He lost everything that night, even his bed. 

Some 15 hundred students used to cross those fields in the early morning to reach the school, which is the only higher education facility available for a least 50 villages. After the IS raid, all of them had to remain home, trying to maintain their studies on their own. 

“The Taliban never did such thing”, said the young school director, who had graduated in 2011 from the Khost University. “When the Taliban came to the school in the past, they simply requested that we introduce a new book, called Faranghi, which means 'cultural book,' but they made no arguments against the government programs.” Teachers we spoke to said the same; even English language lessons were allowed under the Taliban’s watch, alongside Pashto, the second language of Afghanistan, and Dari.  

“Whenever there was a problem,” the teachers said, “we always negotiated with them with the help of local elders.”

The Taliban’s shadow district government used to visit the school every two weeks, inquiring about the general aspects of the curriculum and occasionally underscoring the importance of Islamic teaching. There was, however, a sort of tacit agreement straddling the role of the government and that of Taliban: The school would remain open and the governmental programs allowed, as long as no one objected to the introduction of Islamic studies. 

“If we did not adjust and incorporate the Taliban’s agenda,” explains the school director, “they probably would have closed the school and our students would have suffered from that.” 

The IS approach was different. 

“They stole our salaries, recruited students by force, blocked lessons and occupied the school,” the school’s director said. He failed in attempts to negotiate with the IS-appointed local emir to keep the school open, he told us. In the eyes of the new insurgent group, the school belonged to an illegitimate Afghan government supported by foreign funding, and hence need to be closed, with the building repurposed to serve the cause of the Islamic State. Fighters slept in the school for months. 

IS recently abandoned the village and the school has reopened, with some 900 students returning to continue their lessons. Many still choose to stay away, however, their families still fearing IS advances and military clashes. According to Achin’s district governor, 80 percent of the region is now under  government control, but clashes are ongoing, with checkpoints in place and armed vehicles patrolling the area.

“We want to go back to school and keep studying interesting topics, such as math and biology,” said Assadullah, a teenager from the village. However, the school that IS left behind is different from the one he remembers.  The laboratories are completely non-functional, the majority of furniture, including school desks, broken, and the walls scribbled with slogans praising the Islamic State of Khorasan. No books, documents or other school materials were left untouched. Even the school director and the teachers admitted they find it a difficult environment to return to. With so many different political and armed groups and external influences, they have adapted as best they can, but security and lack of budget is what challenges them most. 

In the wake of IS’s departure, the government sent some support in the form of stationary and books, but it was too little to make much difference. Meanwhile, armed men belonging to a local militia that is fighting IS have settled into a fortress just a few metres from the school. Whether their presence will ensure the school greater protection or put it more at risk is unknown. 

From his room, Baba, the 60-year-old watchmen, now sees fighters crossing the fields instead of children. Still, he told us, he can now listen to his radio again while waiting for the school bell to ring.  

Laura Cesaretti is an Italian freelance reporter based in Kabul. She previously worked in Turkey and Lebanon covering the Syrian humanitarian crisis. She has written for the Middle East Monitor, Middle East Eye, Il Foglio and others. She holds an MA in international politics from City University of London and an MA in media research and journalism from La Sapienza, University of Rome.

Silab Mangal is a research analyst of Afghanistan security and foreign affairs, focusing in particular on radical groups in central and south Asia. In 2013, he opened his own research consultancy company, which develops risk assessments and strategy analysis for international think tanks and universities (RUSI, USIP, King’s College of London, etc). He is also a contributor to magazines such as Foreign Affairs and Jane’s. In the past, he has worked as Political Advisor for the Norway Embassy in Kabul, and as local journalist for major international news media, such as BBC and French 24. His latest publication was about the Taliban split and has been published in Foreign Affairs.