Fifth-grade Afghan refugees once learned the Pashto language from characters named Maqbool and Basheer.
Dick and Jane, this duo was not.
In one story, the fictional friends see a group of Afghan mujahedeen cleaning their weapons as they prepare to fight the Soviet army.
Maqbool tells Basheer they should help the rebel fighters ready their machine guns. Basheer concurs. Soon they are meeting with a mujahedeen commander.
“We want you to help clean the weapons and fight the Russians in jihad,” he tells Maqbool and Basheer.
The youngsters agree. Now, presumably, they are soldiers themselves.
The story, and many like it, appear in the millions of textbooks written, printed and distributed during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The books taught reading and math and sought to turn children against the Red Army and the Afghan communist government.
The textbooks’ publisher: The University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies, operating inside Pakistan on a U.S. government grant.
To the center’s longtime director, the textbooks are byproducts of a dark era when Russian bombs killed Afghan schoolchildren and rebel forces fought to save their country.
Exiled Afghan education officials, not UNO officials, wrote the books, Thomas Gouttierre says.
The center’s sole interest, according to him, was to deliver education to children who weren’t getting any.
“I won’t apologize in 2005 for something done in 1988,” he says. “At the time, Afghans were being killed. It would’ve been nice if they wrote, ‘We love you, Russian brother; please don’t kill us.’
“That’s not reality.”
Critics including Nebraskans for Peace and an Afghan education official think Gouttierre’s center should apologize for its part in producing books that glorified rebel fighters and taught students their faith compelled them to fight communism.
Such Cold War-inspired propaganda encouraged violence against the so-called “Enemies of Islam,” says Mark Vasina, president of Nebraskans for Peace.
Years later, Islamic extremists — some of them educated in American-financed schools and armed with American weapons — decided the real enemy of Islam was in fact the United States, he says.
“We should understand quite well that the job of textbooks is to teach the children to love peace,” says Abdul Nabi Wahidi, an Afghan education official now in charge of textbook content. “It was completely against education to try to get the children to fight, and to give them words which stoked their anger.”
The UNO center published an estimated 15 million textbooks in the years after it won $60 million in grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development, a branch of the State Department, to educate Afghan children.
Leaders from seven exiled political parties wrote the books, according to Gouttierre. The authors used content they’d smuggled out of the country when the Russians invaded.
They then sprinkled in violent imagery — bombs, overturned tanks, AK-47s and swords — and anti-Soviet rhetoric that often urged schoolchildren to take up arms.
“Just as school boards in America have control over the content of curriculum, so too did the Afghan Ministry of Education have control over its textbooks,” NU Regent Howard Hawks wrote in response to a Nebraskans for Peace complaint this year.
Anti-communist rhetoric was erased from the books after the Soviets retreated in 1989, says Raheem Yaseer, the Center for Afghanistan Studies’ assistant director.
The books occasionally surfaced in Afghan schools during the 1990s because various groups, including the Taliban, stole the content and reprinted it illegally, he says.
They surfaced even after the Clinton administration cut nearly all funding of Afghan education, including UNO’s project, in 1995.
“That was disastrous,” Yaseer says. “The new textbooks were not finished. But we had to leave, because the money was gone.”
The center again published textbooks after the fall of the Taliban, printing millions more that bore little resemblance to the Soviet-era books. That effort again was cut short when the latest U.S. government book contract was awarded to Creative Associates and not UNO.
The center is still firmly entrenched in the book business, though, thanks mainly to printing presses that crank out campaign posters, women’s magazines and Dari-English dictionaries in Kabul.
The Afghan Educational Press is an offshoot of the Center for Afghanistan Studies, Yaseer says.
All of its profit is reinvested into the business, in part because the UNO center itself can’t legally profit from the venture, Yaseer says.
The money has allowed the press to upgrade old machines and up the number of printing presses to 25.
A cafeteria serves 70 employees food, and a dormitory houses workers who must stay overnight on the property. Many of the employees are transported by seven company vehicles, including two buses.
UNO does not legally own any of the equipment or employ any of the workers, yet the head of the press reports to Yaseer, he says.
“It’s a strange arrangement, but it works.”
Nebraskans for Peace leaders say they don’t understand why UNO still permits a printing operation in Kabul. They’ve asked the regents to review the board’s oversight policy.
“Such a policy should, among other things … prohibit university involvement in militant, religious and gender-biased propaganda at home or abroad,” Vasina wrote in a letter to the regents.
Gouttierre says he met with the Nebraskans for Peace leadership earlier this year, but no resolution came from the meeting.
“I guess they’ve beaten the same dead horse for years and years,” he says. “This is the dead horse they like to beat the most.”