John Mitchell

9th August 2013 at 01:00
Two years ago, the British Council in Afghanistan was attacked by suicide bombers. The current director discusses security and why he thinks education is the key to securing the country's future as international troops withdraw and the presidential election looms. Interview by Emma Seith. Photography by Fraser Band

When did you arrive in Afghanistan?

Last September. Actually, I arrived on 911.

And why did you go there?

The job came up and I applied for it and was fortunate enough to get it. It's a place I've had an interest in for quite a long time. It's cutting-edge cultural relations - cultural relations can be a lot easier in some places. As everyone's aware, there has been the military presence for 10-12 years. We are the soft-power end of the spectrum and I really believe that to help to secure Afghanistan's future education is the key.

How is the British Council helping to improve education?

English is probably the main area we work in. There are, in very broad terms, 45,000 teachers of English in secondary schools in Afghanistan. Our target is, in the next three years, to have reached 16,500 - so just over a third of these teachers - to improve their English teaching skills and materials. We've also been asked to help to introduce English as the medium of education in the Afghan university system. We are thinking of targeting four or five universities to begin with, probably in Kabul. There are 26 universities, but you have got to start small. We're also introducing a leadership programme of 20 or so modules for senior secondary school staff and we're looking to expand this to about 1,200 heads.

What condition are state schools in?

Children, in theory, attend school from six to 18, but certainly not all go. We work exclusively with the state school network and yes, it's reasonably well developed. Clearly some schools have better facilities than others, but education is not bad - there has been a lot of progress. In the past decade, the number of schools has increased from 3,400 to 15,700 and a lot of teachers are now women. Ten years ago, there were 27,700 teachers with virtually no females; now there are 200,000, 33 per cent of whom are female. And 10 years ago, there were 1 million children in primary and secondary education, 10 per cent of whom were girls; now there are 9.5 million, of whom 40 per cent are girls.

What else does the British Council in Afghanistan do?

We manage a large DFID (Department for International Development) fund, which supports civil society organisations. We also work in the arts sector, supporting organisations such as ANIM (the Afghan National Institute of Music) and we work with film producers and theatres. These things were totally quashed and suppressed - no music, no film, no theatre - under the Taliban.

So, education is key to the future of the country?

One of Afghanistan's problems is its economy; for any country to develop its economy, you need an educated workforce.

What's life like in Afghanistan just now?

It very much varies. Kabul is very different from the rest of the country. But the two big issues are the withdrawal of foreign forces by the end of next year and the presidential election next April. There were accusations last time about the validity of the elections; what everybody is hoping for is a free and fair election so that whoever gets elected has a mandate.

Are you optimistic?

Hopeful, I think.

How do you feel about the withdrawal of troops?

The Afghan forces are doing a pretty good job and the full handover for security has now happened. My personal view is that there will be a dip in security for the next year or 18 months, followed by an acceptable level of security. But there is an argument to say that once the main enemy has gone, the focus of a lot of the violence will be moving out.

How long will you stay for?

I'm hoping to stay until mid-2014.

How secure do you feel?

I feel fairly secure, generally. We've got very good security at the embassy. It's an odd place to be; it's a bit like living in a boarding school or being in prison - you do what you are told. One of the big frustrations is that I don't go out that much because of security- I'll go off the compound maybe two or three times a week. But it's necessary. The British Council had a big attack a couple of years ago. We were targeted and eight people were killed - none of our staff, but security guards. Our premises got totally destroyed. We were off compound at that stage and moved back as a result.

What preparation has to take place before you go out?

I need to give notice and then I'd go out in an armoured vehicle, possibly with body armour on, and with my own close-protection person.

Have you ever felt threatened?

When you hear explosions, sometimes, yes. A few weeks ago, there was a disturbance that went on for most of the evening - sporadic gunfire and explosions about 1km away. One is probably always slightly on edge, but it's OK. I really am enjoying it.

What do you do to relax?

I swim, I play the piano, go to the gym - but you probably don't relax that much. You work for six weeks and then you are home for two; I always feel I do eight weeks' work in six.


Born: 1958, Truro, Cornwall

Education: Truro School, Cornwall; MBA, Open University, 1997

Career: Joined Barclays Bank straight from school, leaving in 1994 to become finance director of a Christian development organisation in Nepal. In 1998 he joined the British Council; international postings have included Hungary, Zambia, Algeria, India and most recently Afghanistan.

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