SANGIN, Helmand province, Afghanistan --
The summer is winding down and the school year is just weeks away in the United States. Children of all ages have nervous butterflies in anticipation of the first day of school, while parents purchase school supplies to prepare their sons and daughters for the coming months.
Most children in Afghanistan, however, will never have this experience. They will never pass notes under their desks or buy new shoes for the first day of school. A teacher’s desk will never know the quintessential apple placed by an innocent hand.
Schools in Afghanistan are scarce. Only 34 percent of the population is literate, while only 28 percent of children are enrolled in secondary school, and only 12 percent actually attend. The insurgency, whose grasp on the residents of Afghanistan is faltering in the region, sees education as a threat to its occupation and will not allow the building of a school without a fight.
Elders here, however, are working with a Marine Civil Affairs Group attached to 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, to deny the insurgency a foothold and give the youth of their city a brighter future. The building of a new high school is one of several projects the CAG is working on to improve the day-to-day lives of local residents.
“We are here to help the people,” said Riverdale, Md., native Sgt. Josephine Kennedy, the CAG noncommissioned officer in charge. “We are here to keep the insurgents out and give (the residents) things they don’t already have that will help better their lives.”
Insurgents have targeted the school three times with Improvised Explosive Devices during its construction, as they show signs of desperation and a lack of control in the area.
“The (insurgents are) against any education other than Islamic teachings,” said Maryville, Tenn., native Maj. Jason West, the CAG leader. “They are against any school that says they are going to teach math or science; they see it as a symbol they want to destroy.”
Nevertheless, as the construction continues, security throughout the region continues to improve. Afghan National Civil Order Police and Afghan National Army soldiers are partnering with small detachments of Marines to patrol the area, maintaining security at the school’s construction site and searching for insurgents. Local officials said they believe families will begin to see the benefits a school can bring to the community as the feeling of security grows and the local citizens gain confidence in their safety.
“It is very important in our society for students to be able to come here and learn,” said Hamdu Llah, a local contractor and the project manager responsible for building the school. “Students will be able to come here and make it possible to have a better future.”
There are currently 85 registered teachers within the Sangin district who may be considered to fill the required positions once the school is finished, and the eight-classroom school will be able to teach more than 200 students. The insurgents, however, are expected to make it difficult for both teachers and families who intend to send their children to school, though West said they will be able to overcome the challenge.
“There will be a hurdle on the security side due to the pressure that will be applied by the insurgents to the teachers to not teach,” said West, a 1996 graduate of the University of Alabama. “Given the location of the school, I don’t believe it will be a problem.”
West explained the increased security efforts around the school have prevented insurgents’ efforts in recent months, as the Afghans and Marines work together to ensure safety in the region. If construction continues as planned, Sangin High School will be completed within two months and can open its doors to educate the youth in the region. West said the school will stand as a beacon, demonstrating the confidence and security of the Afghan people who have fought against the insurgency to move toward further development.
“The insurgents destroyed the school as a symbol of what they stand for, so our partnership with the Afghan government is to restore the school as a symbol of what we stand for – we stand for the education of the youth of the Afghan people,” said West. “When this school opens up, the people will see that they can send their kids safely and they will see progress.”
Editor’s note: First Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, is currently assigned to Regimental Combat Team 8, 2nd Marine Division (Forward), which heads Task Force Leatherneck. The task force serves as the ground combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) and works in partnership with the Afghan National Security Force and the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The unit is dedicated to securing the Afghan people, defeating insurgent forces, and enabling ANSF assumption of security responsibilities within its area of operations in order to support the expansion of stability, development and legitimate governance.