A Teacher’s Death Foretold and How the Afghan Government is Failing to Protect Threatened Civilians

Working as an election observer during Afghanistan’s 2010 parliamentary elections, I frequently received reports of candidates and campaign staff being threatened by the Taliban, by other militant groups, by rivals and by anonymous predators.

The threats would typically increase from a trickle to a deluge over the course of weeks and then, one day, a report would arrive at my office saying that the threatened individual had been killed. I remember many of these stories: the shopkeeper who was shot for displaying a campaign poster in the window of his store, the five young campaign workers who were shot execution-style in the desert, the kidnapped candidate who was found beheaded in a ditch near his home district and other grim endings to precarious lives. Political deaths are often foretold long in advance in Afghanistan’s grinding conflict.

When school principal Khan Mohammad was shot dead in his home in Logar province this week, the Guardian’s story about his murder included this line:

Taliban gunmen have killed the headteacher of a girls’ school near the Afghan capital after he ignored warnings to stop teaching girls, government officials have said.

Hopes for an educated Afghanistan are fading fast. Mohammad’s decision to keep teaching in the face of intimidation was a noble one. When school officials bow to pressure from regressive forces, whole communities are deprived of the chance to educate their children, especially their girls.

By implying that Mohammad was killed because he “ignored” warnings from the Taliban, the Afghan government is dodging its share of responsibility for Mohammad’s death and the deaths of others like him.

When individuals are threatened with violence, the government has a responsibility to protect them from harm to the fullest of its ability. Most of the time, it fails to do so because the police force does not engage in adequate public outreach, because at-risk individuals and groups often distrust their local police and because protection is seldom forthcoming for the small number of individuals who request it.

If the government was aware of the threats against Khan Mohammad, it should have provided him with protection at his home and at his school, which has closed in the wake of his murder. Stationing a police officer or two outside of Mohammad’s home and school might not have been enough to prevent Mohammad’s murder if the Taliban were steadfastly determined to end the school teacher’s life by any means necessary, but it undoubtedly would have made the tragedy less likely.

As the Taliban factions step up their fighting season offensive against not only military targets but also against civilians, the Afghan government needs to take more seriously its duty to protect those who, like Khan Mohammad did, end up literally in the crosshairs for working to move Afghanistan forward.