With his head bowed, the student stands in silence. His elder brother has dragged him to the principal’s office for bad behaviour, including pick-pocketing and bullying.
The brother, a software engineer, is elegantly dressed in khakis and a crisp shirt. He finishes his rant, and then silence takes over the spacious office.
“In five years,” the principal tells the misbehaving student, “your elder brother here will have a wonderful family – a wife, a car and a nice house.” The student listens, without raising his head.
“You will be a nobody, begging on the streets.”
As he lets the student absorb his words, the principal looks out of the window to make sure everything is in order. Two large loudspeakers are installed outside, through which he barks commands whenever something is wrong in the north Kabul schoolyard. His gaze returns to the student.
“Tell me what I need to change for you,” he asks the young man, “to ensure that you will have the same.”
It is 7:30 a.m. For Assadullah Kohistani, this is business as usual at Ghulam Haider Khan High School.
Kohistani is the principal of one of the largest public schools in Kabul. It has 8,000 students. For the past decade, he has worked 14 hours a day, six days a week – transforming one of Kabul’s poorest and most notorious schools, which for years lay in ruins, into a model institution.
Taking advantage of the relative security in Kabul, Kohistani has succeeded, despite a lack of infrastructure. He has done so only with innovative leadership, the will of his students and the support of the community.
This principal’s struggle is an example of inspirational work done at the local level in Afghanistan, which, if not further nurtured, may amount to nothing.
On November 20, when world leaders gather in Lisbon for a Nato summit, Afghanistan is expected to be the chief topic for discussion.
With the 2012 election in view, the Obama administration has focused on finding a way out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible.
Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to the region, recently told reporters in Washington: “You can put all of this under one word: transition.” He went on to insist that transition does not mean a repeat of the 1980s, when Afghanistan was largely forgotten.
But the sharp focus on transition, and particularly the July 2011 date for beginning a withdrawal, has caused uncertainty in Kabul, where there is a fear that long-term nation-building has been overshadowed.
“This country has had a bitter experience of transitions in the past,” Waheed Omer, a spokesman for Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, said.
“We understand that the people are concerned as we enter this new phase,” he admitted. “But the president is fully committed to making sure the transition is careful, and that the momentum of progress is not affected.”
The infrastructure necessary to hold the country together after Nato withdraws is fragile. A large portion of the civilian efforts take place thanks to security provided by Nato and Afghan forces.
Dark decades and a glimmer of hope
Like most of Afghanistan’s institutions, the school Kohistani inherited as principal in 2003 was trampled over numerous times in the last three decades.
The trouble began in 1992, after the Afghan Mujahedeen defeated President Najibullah’s Soviet-backed government with the help of CIA. In the subsequent power vacuum, warring factions soon turned Kabul, particularly the west of the city, into a horrific battlefield.
“The city was so divided between factions that you felt no safety anywhere,” recalls Dadul Haq, an elderly teacher who has taught Pashto literature at the school for over 30 years.
“You might survive the rockets, but if you fell into the hands of the militias, you would die digging trenches for them.”
Dead bodies lay on every street corner as the population tried to flee. Some families from the west of Kabul emigrated to Pakistan or Iran, while others found shelter in the north of the city. There, they turned to government buildings.
Ghulam Haider Khan High School, too, became a shelter for internally displaced families. Every classroom was packed. Some housed three families at a time.
“The classrooms turned into kitchens,” said Haq. “You could see smoke coming out of the windows as they built fires.”
During the 1990s, government institutions were looted and closed down. Schools were repeatedly disrupted when long periods of fighting broke out. Teachers found themselves without salaries. Textbooks and furniture vanished.
But in 2001, Kohistani returned to his post as vice principal, after six years of staying at home.
He found the school “an empty building standing amidst a dumpster”. The windows had shattered, and the doors were gone. The courtyard walls had crumbled, exposing students to the busy market in every direction.
At noon, shopkeepers would urinate in a corner and wash before afternoon prayers. The students just watched, sitting on the bare concrete floor since their chairs had been burned as firewood during cold winters.
The school, however, struggled to rebuild. The principal at the time sought aid from NGOs for chairs and desks. He wrote proposals and brought in representatives for tours. But he only acquired symbolic donations – pens, pencils and notebooks.
Two years into Karzai’s government, the school remained in its desperate condition. The principal was finally overwhelmed by frustration and resigned.
Desire to change
However, what followed at the school is an example of ordinary Afghans’ desire for stability.
“There is no doubt that the people wanted better,” says Kohistani, who was promoted to principal after his boss resigned. So growing frustrated with the government and NGOs, he turned to the community for help.
“The people of this country know the value of education. I just had to assure them of their investment.”
As one of his first tasks, he gathered locals and his staff for a shura to explain the desperate situation.
Abul Rahim Sangar, the head of the eleventh district education department and Kohistani’s boss, recounted the discussions. “This is not an educational institution right now,” the principal told the attendees.
“We have to rebuild these walls and mark our boundaries,” Kohistani said.
The principal used his creativity to usher in help.
“You should not donate a single penny,” Kohistani remembers telling locals. “I want goods. I want trucks of bricks, cement. I want labour.”
“If you donate a single brick, come back ten months later and I will tell you where I laid it.”
Charity poured in. A local businessman offered bricks, a doctor paid for cement and a general compensated the workers. The school soon had walls for its compound, closing it off from the crowded market. But the campus remained dead.
“The principal started a system of cooperation with the students and their families,” said Sangar. “Now they all share in the responsibility of maintaining it.”
Once again, Kohistani insisted on donations – flowers, trees and bushes. But this time, with a slight difference.
Traditionally, rebellious students were punished by being beaten on the palms of their hands, or were locked up for hours in a small room. Kohistani saw an opportunity to change that.
Under the new punitive system, students had to shovel dirt or pump water for the rejuvenated garden. For the most serious misconduct, the student had to help in fertilising the garden. As his classmates watched, the student would empty out trolleys of human manure, the traditional technique.
“All along, I have been trying to make the students feel like a part of this place,” Kohistani sums up his philosophy. “It’s simple. If his sweat falls on these grounds, he will not let anyone harm the place.”
Uncertainty about the future
For over a decade, Ghulam Haider Khan High School bore the burden of war. The campus looked like an abandoned building. Corruption had created a culture of recklessness in the ruined institution. A 500-Afghani bill could take care of any wrongdoing.
Today, however, the school flaunts a beautiful campus. No immediate signs of the dark 1990s are visible in a vibrant learning environment that is quickly becoming a model Kabul institution.
The role of the local community and the creativity of the school’s leadership have been instrumental in the turnaround.
People like Kohistani, who have worked hard to revive infrastructure, hope that the international community stands at their side and helps their creation mature.
“At the local level, people clearly express their desire and fight for a better future every day,” Waheed Omer, Karzai’s spokesman, said. “The challenge is to protect what we have achieved under difficult circumstances, to extend it, and to turn it into something sustainable.”
As for the rebel student, Kohistani managed to leave him with hope. The student pledged to report to the principal every week. He also promised his brother that he would change his behaviour.
When the student and his brother were about to leave the office, Kohistani opened his desk drawer, pulling out a fistful of sweets.
“Come, take this,” he told the student. “This is to a new beginning.”
Mujib Mashal is a journalist and writer from Kabul, Afghanistan. Currently, he is a Kluge Scholar at Columbia University, finishing a degree in South Asian history.