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Afghanistan’s schools are not under attack from poison

June 1, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary: It is highly unlikely that the Taliban are attacking Afghan schools with poison, mass hysteria is a much more plausible reason.

(Update as at 11.10 UK time, Fri, 1st June: “…part of the media war and have no reality…”.  The Taliban have responded here to the reports they were to blame)


I’ve been lightly following this story of claims that Afghan children at school have been poisoned by unidentified chemical or biological agents.  These stories have occurred at irregular intervals since 2001 (off the top of my head, I would say around once a year) and I think the Independent here gets the analysis about right.

The Independent, 1 June 2012:

“…Symptoms have included vomiting, nausea and fainting. In all cases, most pupils who were admitted to hospital were released on the same day and no long-term damage was done.  On each occasion, the local authorities sent blood samples from poisoned students for tests and launched an investigation into the circumstances.

Gul Agha Ahmadi, a media adviser at the Ministry of Education in Kabul, told The Independent that officials were awaiting test results from the most recent poison scares but that results from tests done after the incidents in April and early May had failed to show the presence of harmful substances.

Isaf tests into the Khost incident also showed no harmful substances present. The “initial laboratory test of multiple air, water and material samples were negative for any organic compounds such as poisons or other toxic material,” an Isaf spokesman said. “Further tests continue, but at this point it is unlikely that any foreign substance caused the reported symptoms.”

Mr Ahmadi said mass hysteria could not be ruled out, because Afghan people live in constant fear of insurgent attacks and could easily imagine terrorists poisoning their drinking water.

Robert Bartholomew, a prominent sociologist, also told the AFP news agency that the poisoning scare had “the tell-tale signs” of mass hysteria.

He said, “the preponderance of schoolgirls; the absence of a toxic agent; transient, benign symptoms; rapid onset and recovery; plausible rumours; the presence of a strange odour; and anxiety generated from a wartime backdrop” all pointed to mass hysteria. As a result of having been at war for more than 30 years, half the Afghan population suffers from psychological problems, according to Bashir Ahmad Sarwari, the head of the government’s mental health department…”

The key point from an analytical perspective is that THERE IS NO EVIDENCE OF ANY POISON ATTACK.  Furthermore, if an attack’s likelihood is a product of CAPABILITY AND INTENT, I would find it very unlikely that the Taliban have the capability to deliver chemical agents across the country in this fashion and, their concerns over the nature of schooling notwithstanding, the Taliban very much understand how damaging the mass slaughter of Afghan Muslim children would be to their cause.  Although many onlookers and stakeholders would like to believe this was another form of insurgent attack, the most likely explanation is a form of mass hysteria.  This is most likely caused by vulnerable and suggestible people – mainly teenage girls, it seems – existing for months and years in persistent fear.  They are bombarded from all directions with stories of Taliban hostility to schools and likely risk to life if they so much as attend an educational establishment, both of which have more than a small grain of truth.  When one child sneezes they all catch cold, so to speak.  It is possible to exhibit symptoms of an illness you believe you have.  Once the story breaks in the media, the chances that other pupils in other schools will suddenly believe they are being poisoned massively increases.  There were no confirmed long-term injuries and ISAF analysis, which I would definitely trust in this instance, found no trace of malignant bodies in the air, water and material samples it took.  I will be giving the Taliban the benefit of the doubt on this one.

See how rumours spread…

But rumours can be damaging and dangerous – they can cause violence and death just as much as an IED strike can, just ask ISAF.  At the very least, fragile trust can be eroded further.  It was perhaps predictable that Afghan local authorities immediately leap to the standard “Taliban/enemies of the state are to blame”.  But slightly more worrying if, as the Independent suggests, the NDS, the Afghan Intelligence Service, seems to believe the Taliban are behind it.  For their part, I am sure the Taliban are signing it off as another media/intelligence plot against them.  It is likely to become even harder to gather accurate information from the provinces on key issues as Western forces and agencies pull out.   Knee-jerk reactions based on rumour and bias help no one. Some of these judgements about Taliban culpability are based on ignorance and some on prejudice.  Perhaps some are made because there is a subtext being pushed out (“see the problems we have to deal with”, “don’t leave us”, “give us more resources”, “a deal with the Taliban is not possible”).

Final thought – if it is ever a good idea to try and develop some confidence building measures between insurgents and counter-insurgents, it might be a good start for ISAF (and/or the Afghan government and/or the UN, etc) to specifically point out that they do not believe the Taliban were responsible for incidents where they do not believe the Taliban were responsible.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Luke Heikkila permalink
    June 1, 2012 6:55 pm

    Tim, I would like to seek your permission to reblog your entry as a way to counter a post I ran with about this a week, or so ago. Regards, Luke

    • June 1, 2012 7:53 pm

      Luke, hi and thanks and please help yourself – its all part of the debate!



  2. Luke Heikkila permalink
    June 1, 2012 11:54 pm

    Reblogged this on 10 Days in the Sand and commented:
    Tim Foxley has been writing about Afghanistan for quite awhile…his blog is full of information that isn’t readily available elsewhere. Earlier this week when I wrote about some stories I read about Afghan girls’ schools being attacked he took the time to write me and offer up a differing opinion. Today he wrote extensively on what he thought was happening. This is definitely worth a read.

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