Posted by: Christian | March 31, 2009

ISI/Taliban Tactics: Killing Teachers/Students in Afghanistan

I was reading a great article by Alex Marshall on the history of the Soviet-Afghan War (‘Managing Withdrawal: Afghanistan as the Forgotten Example in Attempting Conflict Resolution and State Reconstruction’, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol.18, No.1, 2007) when I was directed towards a tactic used by the mujahideen (and “directed” by the Pakistani ISI): killing teachers. I followed a citation to this passage in a memoir by a very high ranking Pakistani ISI officer describing his operations:

Next was sabotage and assassination from within. I always emphasized that our targets were Soviets, KHAD agents, government officials and their facilities in Kabul. These attacks could range from a knife between the shoulder blades of a Soviet soldier shopping in the bazaar to the placing of a briefcase bomb in a senior official’s office. The former were sufficiently successful to force all Soviet troops to move about in armed groups, and for civilians to have military escorts. Markets were eventually declared off-limits to Soviets and their families. The latter included placing a bomb under the dining-room table of Kabul University in late 1983. The explosion, in the middle of their meal, killed nine Soviets, including a woman professor. Educational institutions were considered fair game, as the staff were all communists indoctrinating their students with Marxist dogma. To the Mujahideen this was corrupting the youth of the country, turning them away from the true faith of Islam. I would point out that in 1982 no fewer than 140 Soviet specialists and 105 Russian language teachers taught at the university and Kabul technical colleges. Among other victims were the rector of the university…

That passage is from Mohammad Yousaf’s book, Afghanistan-The Bear Trap, originally published in 1992.

The book is, of course, a one-sided glorification of the Pakistani ISI’s Afghan Bureau by Yousaf, the former head of…..the ISI’s Afghan Bureau. Yousaf is rather matter-of-fact about much of what they did, and the killing of teachers seemed to be par for the course. According to Antonio Giustozzi, by 1986 over 2,000 Afghan government teachers had been killed by the mujahideen. Furthermore, approximately 9,000 teacher had been assaulted and 2,000 schools destroyed.

And it seemed to work then, so how about now? Murders of school teachers and destruction of schools is today quite standard behavior by the Taliban and other insurgents. Human Rights Watch documented the attacks in detail a couple of years ago. This 2005 anecdote from a mother of two girls in Kandahar is quite representative of the HRW report as a whole:

During Ramadan [late 2005], the girls were still going to school. There was a letter posted on the community’s mosque saying that “men who are working with NGOs and girls going to school need to be careful about their safety. If we put acid on their faces or they are murdered, then the blame will be on the parents.” . . . After that, we were scared and talked about it, but we decided to let them keep going anyway. But after Eid, a second letter was posted on the street near to there, and the community decided that it was not worth the risk [and stopped all girls over age ten from going to school]. . . . My daughters are afraid-they are telling us “we’ll get killed and be lying on the streets and you won’t even know.”

This is no idle threat. Late last year this girl was attacked with acid:

Last year IRIN reported:

The MoE said 99 schools have been attacked, torched and/or destroyed by armed assailants this year and 117 similar cases were reported in 2007. Dozens of students, some as young as seven, and teachers have been killed or injured by armed assailants over the past two years. Armed men associated with Taliban insurgents reportedly cut off the ears of a teacher in Zabul Province on 14 September as a sign of punishment to those who support education. In addition, Taliban insurgents in August reportedly attacked trucks carrying textbooks from Kabul to Kandahar province and burnt tens of thousands of books, the MoE said.

So the Taliban and their allies (I include the ISI in this) are brutal in the extreme and civilians are fair game in their eyes. That’s quite clear. But what has changed is the inclusion of children as targets of attack. In the 1980s schools and teachers were targeted. Now little girls are attacked with water guns filled with acid. I’ll skip the moral outrage and get to the point: this is, in the eyes of the Pakistani ISI and the Taliban, a “good” tactic. It works for what they want.

For a full explanation of “barbarism” as an often successful tactic, I suggest you read Ivan Arreguín-Toft. I won’t get into Arreguín-Toft much here (because I have only skimmed it). But I will note that he does excerpt from fiction (Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now) to illustrate his point:

I remember when I was with Special Forces–it seems a thousand centuries ago–we went into a camp to inoculate it. The children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us, and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile–a pile of little arms. And I remember…I…I…I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it, I never want to forget. And then I realized–like I was shot…like I was shot with a diamond…a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, “My God, the genius of that, the genius, the will to do that.” Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they could stand that–these were not monsters, these were men, trained cadres, these men who fought with their hearts, who have families, who have children, who are filled with love–that they had this strength, the strength to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time were able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment–without judgment. Because it’s judgment that defeats us.

The point is that Colonel Kurtz is quite mad, yet completely rational/logical. Dumping acid in little girls’ faces is not too far from cutting of the arms of innoculated children. And in a perfect world this act would outrage the locals so much that they would turn on the insurgents and blah blah blah… But in this world civilians are scared to death of people who decapitate suspected collaborators and deface kids with acid. So will the Taliban continue with these tactics? Absolutely. Will the ISI continue to sponsor and suppport their operations? Of course. Because in this environment these tactics do work (for the insurgents).


  1. Wow, really appreciate this post. Haven’t read anything containing this much detail and frankly illuminating revelation about insurgency tactics during the Soviet-Afghan wars… especially revelations that point directly to what ISI is probably doing right now.

    Really appreciated the post.

  2. According to an article in the British paper The Guardian last week, the ISI was implicated in new arms shipments to the Taliban. This won’t shock anyone–however, whenever journalists are doing interviews on Afghanistan or Pakistan, they never ask the pundits or authors they interview about the ISI–which seems to act like its own state. All the stuff about Pakistani cooperation may be well intended, but until their government can get rid of the bad apples in the ISI–or totally restructure it–I don’t see a liklihood of Pakistan being able to get rid of extremism–and the more years deobandi schools and similar keep churning out graduates, the more support there will be for fundamentalists. So whither Afghanistan as long as the ISI is around?

  3. I think you are spot on. However, the fulcrum is IMO when you have a permenent security presence in the population center (not clear, clear, clear ad nauseam) then the public outrage has a chance to impact the popular mood since insurgent reprisals can be limited and the flow of HUMINT can be nurtured into a steady stream. Population-centric COIN yet again…

  4. There is another point to making schools unsafe. Parents can send their children to madaras over the border. Left with the only choice. And then those children come back… you know how it is.

  5. […] a fair number of comparisons to the Taliban this week, now’s a good time for a review of what they’ve been up to lately–that’s Christian Bleuer on their use of children as targets. Naturally, the Taliban are […]


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