An Afghan teacher holds an outdoor class in the outskirts of Mihtarlam.

Safe environment … a teacher holds an outdoor class in Mihtarlam, Afghanistan. Taliban threats and violence have forced pupils to move to boarding schools. Photo: AFP

JALALABAD, Afghanistan: The first time insurgents burnt down Hazratullah's school, he helped rebuild it with donated carpets and salvaged chalkboards. But when Taliban fighters returned with guns and petrol, torching his makeshift year seven classroom, Hazratullah decided it was time to leave.

''We knew then that if we wanted to go to school, we would have to move,'' said the 14-year-old, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.

They threatened to behead us if we kept going to school. 

He and his three cousins packed clothes and blankets. Then their parents drove them to a refuge for children whose schools had been shuttered or destroyed by the Taliban. About 16 kilometres outside Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, they found the Pashtunistan School.

Afghan National Army soldier donate bags and stationery to schoolchildren in the outskirts of Mihtarlam.

Afghan National Army soldier donate bags and stationery to schoolchildren. Photo: AFP

Hazratullah's new school is also a monument to one of his government's greatest failures - its inability to protect students and teachers in vast areas of the country that have been effectively ceded back to the Taliban. On its campus, 350 boys from all over Afghanistan swap stories about Taliban fighters beating their teachers and setting their classrooms on fire.

Officials said there are two Afghanistans: one where public education can be protected, and another where it cannot.

The new reality is reflected in a NATO paper intended to convey how concentrated the violence has become and how much of the country enjoys relative peace. ''Eighty per cent of the enemy attacks take place in areas where only 20 per cent of the Afghan population lives,'' the NATO chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said. But the less fortunate 20 per cent includes millions of children.

Afghan officials said part of the problem was that the US had built schools in places where security could not be maintained. More than 90 per cent of the country's 500 shuttered schools are in four provinces in the volatile south-east.

''The reality is that in some areas, the lack of security means there is no access to education,'' the Education Minister, Farooq Wardak, said.

''Either we can move those students to safer places, or they will remain uneducated and easy for the Taliban to absorb.''

The Taliban's antipathy towards the education of girls is well known. But boys' schools are in the crosshairs too because they are seen as an extension of the West. ''They threatened to behead us if we kept going,'' Noorullah, from Kunar province said.

About half of all schools are closed in Zabul province, where the NATO troop withdrawal has been rapid.

About a third of schools are closed in Helmand and a quarter in Kandahar, according to the Afghan government's figures. In several districts where families have sent sons to Pashtunistan, the insurgency isn't the biggest problem. There just aren't enough teachers.

Some Western-funded schools never opened because of security concerns. Others were closed by the insurgency days after being inaugurated. Some schools survived for years, like Hazratullah's, but collapsed as security grew weaker. ''Wherever I drive, I see schools built by the NATO forces that were closed or never finished,'' the governor of Nurestan province, Tamim Nurestani, said.

In recent months, the insurgency's closure of schools has prompted anti-Taliban uprisings in several provinces, a development that officials see as a positive sign.

In parts of the country where the Taliban remains in control, insurgents often inspect the curriculum and handpick teachers but allow schools to remain open. The insurgency's inconsistent approach to education, officials and analysts said, spoke to its fragmentation.

But for children living in districts where insurgents have demolished schools or threatened teachers, that lack of consistency doesn't mean much. ''We have no plans to return home,'' Hazratullah said. ''Here, there are classrooms and teachers. At home, there is nothing.''

Washington Post