“The play traffics in silence and omission, in the things we aren’t able to say to each other, in the secrets we keep in order to protect one another.”
– Gabriel Jason Dean, playwright
Gabriel Jason Dean’s “obsession with Afghanistan,” as he calls it, began in 2006 when his brother-in-law’s girlfriend died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan on a visit to her father, a civilian contractor. The tragedy stirred Dean to learn as much as he could about the country, even before he thought of writing about it. During his research, Dean chanced upon an article concerning United States’ funding of anti-Soviet, pro-mujahideen textbooks in the 1980s. Heartland grew out of that learning experience. “It’s difficult to point the finger at ourselves,” Dean says; “I think that’s a real mistake.” He believes Heartland holds the possibility of opening up a conversation similar to the conversation fostered in German schools in relation to the Holocaust: “There is very much an ownership and a sense of ‘We did this horrible thing, we have to make reparation for it.’”
In December 1979, one hundred thousand Soviet troops crossed the border into Afghanistan, gained control of the central government in Kabul, and launched myriad reforms throughout the country to mirror the Soviet way of life. In support of anti-communist resistance, the United States and Pakistan financed and armed disparate groups of rural Afghan insurgents, collectively known as mujahideen. In the ensuing ten-year conflict, more than a hundred thousand combatants from both sides were killed, and millions of Afghan civilians were slaughtered, maimed, starved to death, or displaced into refugee camps, primarily in Pakistan. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, a weakened Afghanistan succumbed to civil war and became a breeding ground for anti-imperialist terrorism.
Most Afghans view education as both a religious obligation (“for the soul”) and a path toward social and economic security (“for the world”). They are therefore committed to schooling all of their children, male and female. Yet rural communities, which comprise three-fourths of Afghanistan’s population, have for centuries challenged educational reforms that undermine their local cultural and religious traditions. With the rise of communism in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, and especially after the Soviet invasion, fears of educational secularization turned into reality as the newly formed government initiated a substantial overhaul of the school system. The issue of enforced education was central to the mujahideen resistance, and the United States acted to disrupt the Marxist ideology and anti-mujahideen sentiment promulgated in the classroom.
In 1986, the United States Agency for International Development gave the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) a $50 million dollar grant to produce primary school textbooks promoting an anti-Soviet agenda. The university distributed the funds through the Education Center for Afghanistan in Peshawar, Pakistan. Under the auspices of the seven-party mujahideen alliance, and supported by the CIA and ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency), a committee of Afghan educators designed and wrote textbooks in the Pashto and Dari languages. Highlighting the key role of the mujahideen freedom fighters, many of the books included illustrations of tanks and guns and references to hatred, violence, and jihad, whose meaning was altered from its historical concept as a personal spiritual struggle to a collective militant struggle against opponents of Islam. Here, for example, are excerpts from a first-grade language arts text: “The Russians are the enemies of the religion of Islam”; “We perform jihad against the oppressors”; “Shakir conducts jihad with the sword. God becomes happy with the defeat of the Russians.” Mathematics textbooks, too, incorporated anti-Soviet indoctrination, as evidenced in this fourth-grade word problem:
The speed of a Kalashnikov bullet is 800 meters per second. If a Russian is at a distance of 3,200 meters from a mujahid, and that mujahid aims at the Russian’s head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead.
Violent messages in textbooks targeted for children had precedence in Afghan schools. During the reign of King Zahir Shah (1933-73), harsh imagery infused the curriculum. A 1970 first-grade language arts text, for example, included this verse in a poem about Afghan independence:
If, with designs on our land,
Our dirty enemies
Come forward one step,
We will cut off their feet,
We will cut off their legs,
We will cut off their legs.
But the involvement of the United States in the development of such texts was unprecedented. Raheem Yaseer, who worked at the UNO office in Peshawar at the time, justified the decision in a 2001 interview. Yaseer (now assistant director of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies) citied Afghans’ “religious and cultural sensitivities” to explain why UNO project managers sanctioned the committee’s choice of subject matter. Given that Afghans deeply resented the Soviet reform of Afghan education, the university wanted to mitigate any suspicion they might be imposing American values on Afghan children. Skirting the issue of whether using tax dollars to promote religion violated a constitutional ban, government officials defended the religious content of the textbooks, arguing that Afghan culture is inextricably bound to Islamic principles.
Hundreds of thousands of Afghan students in Afghanistan and in Pakistan-based refugee camps used the US-funded mujahideen textbooks. After the Soviet withdrawal, parents, teachers, and aid organizations pressured the Education Program for Afghanistan to eliminate the violent references. Revision of the textbook series was completed by 1992, the same year the last Afghan communist regime was overthrown, and the US terminated its educational project in 1994. Reprinted versions of the original, unrevised texts soon surfaced, however, and they played a dominant role in education after the 1996 ascendancy of the Taliban (Pashto for “students”). The Taliban, educated as children in refugee camps during the Soviet occupation, emerged in adulthood to foment the Islamic militancy they had studied in US-funded jihadist textbooks. In protest of the US presence on Afghan soil, they reinforced the books’ anti-imperialist message, turning anti-Soviet language into a model for anti-American rhetoric. Many schools and madrassas on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border continue to use these as well as similar textbooks to teach militancy as a religious obligation, even though other types of books are available.