Reaching boiling point: high school activism in Afghanistan

Antonio Giustozzi & Ali Mohmmad Ali


This research paper explores patterns of politicisation in Afghanistan’s high schools.  It reveals how the ban on political activities within schools has had little impact, and explores how the reproduction of the political establishment within schools poses a potential risk to Afghanistan’s future stability. It suggests two ways to address this: (1) revoking the ban in order to create a space for diverse political voices, and (2) giving more attention to the quality of education to address frustrations from those more susceptible to radicalisation.

This research paper contributes to anecdotal evidence that challenges the donor assumption that the greater availability of state education and the enrolment that follows is always a positive indicator. It follows earlier AREU research on the political orientation of university students.  Data is drawn from 74 interviews with student activists and teachers from upper secondary schools across 11 provinces.


Large, patronage-orientated organisations and underground parties have remained almost unaffected by the ban on political activities within schools. However, it has particularly affected legally registered parties that are not well connected.

  • The politicisation of students appears to be a natural outcome of the introduction of an open and competitive political system after 2001.
  • The majority of teachers interviewed largely perceive the Ministry of Education’s ban on politics in schools as ineffective, and one quarter of students believed staff know of their political activities but choose not to act on them.
  •  Students appear to understand the dominant political patronage network of established parties. Interview data highlights three main groups:
    • Activists from establishment parties see their involvement as facilitating future employment and they generally follow familial political inclinations. Ideology has little or no influence on the daily activities these high school groups undertake. Researchers found it difficult to identify oppositionist reformists criticising the system from within, with most quite supportive of the status quo.
    • Those from new, relatively secular or Islamist, and other fundamentalist parties excluded from the ruling coalition share mostly negative views about the government, and note their struggles to operate within schools as result of a lack of connections with relevant authorities.
    • Radical opponents of the establishment with objections to the political system sometimes express support for ongoing conflict against the Kabul authorities and conduct activities in relative secret to avoid arrest and sanctions. They are particularly hostile to western influence and refuse to discuss women’s rights. Similar to the first group, they share ambition for access to future education and employment opportunities.
  • The combination of a low economic background and low chances of access to higher education plays a major factor in the politicisation of high school students.
  • Obvious manifestations of extreme student frustration (demonstrations and protests) are rare or, if they do occur, are small-scale.
  • There is some evidence of recruitment of high school students to insurgent groups such as the Taliban, which suggests the ban is unable to prevent underground political initiatives.


The study highlights two developments that policy makers and observers have largely ignored to date:

  • The extent to which high school students are politically active, which, although perhaps a surprise, highlights that there is some life still within the Afghan political system.
  • The widespread presence of radical activists among the wider mass of high school political activists. These radical activists tend to sympathise with the insurgency to varying degrees, and a trickle of high school students has been recruited to the Taliban insurgency.

The ongoing politicisation of high school students has not yet reached a critical point that could contribute to destablising the country. However, authorities will need to act to ensure this does not change:

  • In the short-term, revoking the ban on political activities in schools would ensure a greater variety of parties and organisations could compete for the loyalty of younger generations.
  • In the long term, improving the quality of high school education, including support for attracting qualified teachers back into teaching, is necessary to address frustration of high school students and prevent wider student mobilisation.


Giustozzi, A. & Mohammad Ali, A. (2015). Reaching boiling point: high school activism in Afghanistan. Issues Paper. Kabul, Afghanistan: Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.