“It will probably be the greatest concentration of firepower in the District.” the battalion Executive Officer had assured me. On his second tour in Afghanistan with the US Marine Corps, I was inclined to trust him on such things. That said, planning the security for the opening of a local madrassa – or religious school – was a first for both of us.
On the morning of the opening, an event publicised widely over RIAB – Radio In A Box – the Taliban had made their views known. In a gesture designed as a warning to the local population, they had opened fire on an Afghan National Police unit patrolling the area, darting in and out of their attack on motorbikes.
In spite of such tactics, or possibly because of them, a large number of local elders, as well as twenty or so enthusiastic students, turned out for the opening. As with such celebrations, speeches were held, poetry recited and gifts offered. The dignified silence of the elders contrasted with the barely restrained energy of the boys.
I turned to one young man seated amongst the crowd. He was a pharmacist with a small shop in the local bazaar. ‘Is this madrassa good for the community?’ I asked. ‘Very good.’ he agreed. ‘Do you think girls should be able to have education?’ I probed further, curious to hear the perspective of an educated man. ‘No’ he said bluntly. ‘It is against our tradition.’
The small successes in this campaign belie the challenges ahead.
We left as we came – in a mighty convoy of armoured vehicles of all description, both Marine and Afghan. And as the newly finished madrassa, gleaming with its new coat of blue paint shrank from view, I was left pondering its future. How long will it last? Will the community keep the Taliban at bay? When will there come a time when an event as seemingly uncontroversial as opening a place of education wont require ‘the greatest concentration of firepower in the district’?