(New York) – Afghan security forces are increasingly using schools as bases during military operations in Taliban-held areas, putting children at risk and depriving thousands of an education, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Afghan government should take immediate steps to curtail security force use of schools for military purposes.

An Afghan policeman stands guard at the entrance of a local school sponsored by Japan's International Cooperation Agency in Kandahar City on May 11, 2010.

The 45-page report, “Education on the Front Lines: Military Use of Schools in Afghanistan’s Baghlan Province,” documents the occupation and other military use of schools by state forces and the Taliban in Baghlan province in northeastern Afghanistan. It is based on interviews with more than more than 20 school principals, teachers, and administrators, as well as local families affected by the conflict. As school districts across Afghanistan increasingly find themselves on the front lines of the country’s armed conflict, students risk their lives at schools being used by soldiers which may become military targets, or are deprived of an education until facilities are found elsewhere.

“Afghan children’s education is at risk not just from the Taliban, but also from government forces that occupy their schools,” said Patricia Gossman, senior Afghanistan researcher. “Children are being put in harm’s way by the very Afghan forces mandated to protect them.”

Decades of unrelenting conflict in Afghanistan have decimated the country’s educational system, depriving entire generations of an education. Since late 2001, many donor countries’ reconstruction efforts have focused on rebuilding the country’s devastated educational infrastructure.

Foreign donors have invested heavily in education – building schools, supporting teacher training, and providing textbooks and other materials to schools across the country. But as the security situation has deteriorated in recent years, schools have increasingly been threatened by both insurgent forces and Afghan security forces, who use them for military operations.

In one case, the Taliban in 2010 attacked a middle school that was occupied by Afghan security forces in Postak Bazaar village, Baghlan province, and gunned down seven policemen inside a classroom. “Their blood just wouldn’t wash away,” a school official told Human Rights Watch. “So we had to chip it away from the wall with an axe.”

By 2015, government forces had reoccupied the school, stacking sandbags on the second floor, while students tried to continue their schooling below. Alarmed school officials managed to get Kabul authorities to write a letter ordering the military forces to leave, but the commander disregarded the order. When school officials again presented the letter to the commander at exam time, officers fired their guns in the direction of the assembled teachers and students.

Children are being put in harm’s way by the very Afghan forces mandated to protect them.

Patricia Gossman

Senior Afghanistan Researcher

The Taliban have also used schools in Baghlan as bases, Human Rights Watch found. Taliban forces occupied a Swedish government-financed school in Omar Khail village soon after it opened its doors in 2015, to 350 boys and girls. Pleas by village elders to leave were rejected. In early 2016, government forces attacked the Taliban forces in the school with gunfire and mortar rounds. The Taliban fled, but the school compound was left in ruins.

A major achievement of the Afghan government since Taliban rule has been the increase in girls attending school. But parents are much less likely to allow girls to attend if soldiers are on school grounds or there is a risk of attack, depriving girls of their education.

Under the laws of war, schools are civilian objects that are not subject to attack unless they are being used for military purposes. Unnecessary use of schools by military forces is contrary to the global Safe Schools Declaration, which Afghanistan endorsed in 2015. The declaration urges parties to armed conflicts “not to use schools and universities for any purpose in support of the military effort.”

“A decade of achievement rebuilding Afghanistan’s educational system and increasing education for girls is at risk so long as schools are used by military forces and threatened with attack,” Gossman said. “The Afghanistan government should get its soldiers out of the schools.”