The British Government has ploughed tens of billions of pounds into the war in Afghanistan, and still has 9,500 troops in the country despite plans to scale down its commitment. But the Afghan ministry of education has called for more to be done to support its plans to develop schools. As military capacity is cut, savings should be reinvested in new buildings and teacher training, according to the country's deputy education minister.
Mohammed Sediq Patman, who visited the UK for the first time last month, said that an increase in support from the Department for International Development (DfID) was needed if progress was to be sustained.
"There is some support from DfID, but we want it to do more with the ministry of education because we are laying the structures for the country," he told TES. "Withdraw 100 troops and give us the money for education. Do not give us blood; we have our own blood. Give us the system to support people's minds."
Mr Patman pointed to estimates that it costs $1 million a year to keep each US soldier in Afghanistan. "If the international community gave the expenditure on 100 soldiers in Afghanistan (to the ministry) it would be a big thing for education," he said. "You can understand how much it will help in bringing peace to the country."
Earlier this year, Afghanistan's senior education minister, Farooq Wardak, told TES that the Taliban would abandon its opposition to girls going to school, which had previously been outlawed by the regime. Mr Wardak said that the "upper policy levels" of the Taliban had decided to reverse the ban.
Mr Patman said that the ministry of education had wanted to talk to the Taliban more recently about a new school curriculum "to see if there is anything against Islam" in it, but claimed it had been impossible to do so because the organisation does not have a "united leadership".
More generally, Mr Patman said that officials spoke to the Taliban through community elders in a bid to win its support for education. "The areas where the Taliban are right now were not advanced in education in the past or now," he said. "There hasn't been any formal negotiation between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban themselves. However, there have been negotiations between community elders and community influencers and the Taliban and they have asked them to reopen schools that have closed."
Elements within Iran and Pakistan were also disrupting efforts to open more schools in border areas, according to Mr Patman.
Attacks on institutions such as the British Council - which runs programmes to train Afghan school leaders and links Afghan schools with partners in the UK - would also be overcome, Mr Patman said. A raid by Taliban insurgents on the council's Kabul compound in August left 12 dead. "It's not the first time that enemies of the people of Afghanistan have attacked educational organisations in the country, but it will not take us away from our programmes," he said.
President Obama has said that around a third of American troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by next summer. Around 500 British troops will be back home by the end of next year, with none left in combat roles by 2015. A poll of 1,000 Afghan women by charity ActionAid, published this week, revealed fears that the withdrawal would prompt a return to Taliban-style government, with one in five citing their daughter's education as their main concern.
But Mr Patman said he was not worried about what impact the scaled-down military presence would have. "In contrast, if the level of support given to the education sector is increased it will replace the troops in Afghanistan because people will be educated and safeguard their own country," he said.
Investment from DfID for Afghanistan is due to total #163;178 million per year for the next four years, which goes on a range of projects including agriculture, economic infrastructure and education.
Andrew Mitchell, international development secretary, said "real progress" had been made in education over the past decade. In 2001, less than one million children attended school, compared to almost six million today, a third of whom are girls.
"The UK's assistance has been particularly important in helping finance teachers' salaries as well as supporting the construction of schools and teacher training," Mr Mitchell said. "As we move through transition and beyond, the UK is committed to helping the Afghan government to accelerate progress on education."
However, figures released by the Afghan government earlier this year show the scale of the task still ahead. Almost half of the 400-plus districts and urban centres in the country still had no girls enrolled in high school. In 245 districts there were no qualified female teachers and, according to Mr Patman, half of children who do go to school are forced to study outside. To overcome statistics like those, the minister will need all the help he can get.
THE EXILE RETURNS
Mohammed Sediq Patman grew up in Nangarhar, an eastern province of Afghanistan, and graduated in science from Kabul University in 1978 before returning to teach in his home village.
After a year, he was imprisoned for five years for his opposition to communism. Later he moved to Pakistan, returning to Afghanistan only in 2001 when the new government took office.