THE teacher had been warned.
Mohammed Aref was on duty near the front gate of his school. The children were at recess, playing volleyball without a net.
The throaty rumble of a motorcycle broke through their playful shrieks and laughter. The lone rider, a man wearing a traditional shalwar kameez with his face obscured by the long tail of his turban, called Aref over to talk. Then he pulled an AK-47 from under his baggy shirt and fired six bullets into the teacher.
Aref had no way to defend himself. His only weapons were his faith in knowledge, some tattered books and a piece of chalk. He died in the dirt in front of horrified pupils.
Fifteen days earlier, Taliban guerrillas had come in the darkness and posted a "night letter" on the door of his farmhouse, telling the 50-year-old teacher to stay away from the school if he wanted to stay alive.
Aref, who earned just $50 a month, stood his ground. One of the first victims in the resurgent Taliban's dirty war on education, he gave his life trying to teach Afghan children that there is more to theirs than endless war.
After the U.S. joined with anti-Taliban militias five years ago to bring down the Islamist government, one of the biggest changes was in education. The Taliban, whose name means "students," regard Western-style education as a direct threat to the vision of a pure Islamic state. Its followers regard modern education as a morally toxic force of Western colonialism.
The Taliban's founders learned their disdain for most things modern in radical religious schools in Pakistan, where the only legitimate subject is study of the Koran. Extremist mullahs teach a harsh version of Islam that professes to be a return to traditions established by the prophet Muhammad.
A decade ago, when the Taliban swept across southern Afghanistan to seize the capital, Kabul, the mullahs issued edicts closing the women's university and most girls' schools. A collapsing infrastructure made it difficult for many boys to attend school as well.
When schools reopened in 2002 after the ouster of the Taliban regime, only about a third of Afghanistan's school-age children were in class. Today, the World Bank says, the figure is 87%, about 6.5 million pupils, a reflection of the hope of Afghan parents that the U.S.-backed government will be able to bring their country into the modern world. Some aid workers estimate the figure is much lower.
The United States has distributed textbooks and supplies, trained 50,000 teachers and rebuilt 672 schools.
But once again, education is under pressure from the Taliban. The militants are active once more across at least half of the country, including the southern province of Helmand, where Aref died in December 2005. Afghanistan's corrupt police and weak army are unable to provide much security.
Over the last year, insurgents have burned at least 146 schools, and insecurity has forced 215 others to close, the Afghan Education Ministry says. Zuhoor Afghan, an advisor to Education Minister Mohammed Hanif Atmar, says about 220,000 students have quit school because they fear for their lives.
To his wife and their seven children, and the many villagers who respected him, Aref was a mujahid, a courageous man engaged in a holy struggle to defeat ignorance and hatred so Afghanistan might know peace.
"He loved teaching," said his brother, Mohammed Rafiq Mohammedi. "It was important to him because he wanted students to learn what he knew and build the nation, to work for the people."
The day after Aref died, none of his school's 1,300 students or their teachers showed up for class.
Their principal, Noor Mohammed, spent weeks trying to undo the damage, sitting with parents for hours, trying to convince them they had to keep the school open.
"They said, 'Unless you guarantee the security of our children, we will not allow them to go to school,' " he recalled outside the deserted school recently. "I said, 'I cannot guarantee the lives of your children, but they must study as much as they can.' "
As he desperately tried to reassure parents and children, Mohammed received his own night letter, which was posted on the gate of the local mosque for all to see.
"Drop this business of teaching and the school or you will be responsible for your own death," it warned. "If you continue, you will have to wash your hands of your life."
Like Aref, the principal kept going, but he couldn't vanquish the terror sown by the Taliban or protect his school.
Even where Taliban violence isn't threatening schools, Afghanistan's other problems are. Across the country, schools are in crisis because of corrupt contractors, shoddy building practices and a chronic shortage of textbooks and trained teachers, said Afghan, the Education Ministry official.
"If they have teachers, they don't have books," he said. "If they have books, they have no chairs. If they have fancy buildings, they have no toilets."
The government doesn't even know how many teachers there are because it is still awaiting the results of a head count started early this year. Despite the progress in many areas, every district in the country is reporting a shortage of qualified teachers, Afghan said.
"We need thousands of professional teachers, and we also need to train most of our professional teachers who are teaching now," he said. "There are students who have not even finished their schooling yet, but they are teaching. For example, students in grade 10 and 11 are teaching grade 3 or 4, and in some places it's even worse than that."
The situation is likely to improve under Atmar, the education minister, who has a strategic plan to improve the system, said Wagma Battoor Hassan Zumati, education program coordinator for CARE, a U.S.-based aid agency. Atmar won praise from foreign aid donors for his management of the rural reconstruction and development ministry.
But many Afghans are losing patience. Encouraged by the promises of Western leaders, they believed the Taliban's defeat meant the dawn of a new age of rapid progress, in which all children could get a good education. The plodding advances, even relapses to the more familiar rot of war and corruption in large parts of the country, feed a growing cynicism toward foreign governments and aid agencies.
"The optimism has died because these people are not honest with each other or with us," Afghan said. "They are working for their own benefit."
Woman of defiance
FATIMA MUSHTAQ put her life on the line long ago to help educate Afghanistan.
When the Taliban's mullahs ruled, she ran a secret school for women. Now, as head of education for Ghazni province in central Afghanistan, she is defying the extremists' efforts to turn back the clock. And, as a woman in a deeply conservative region, she also fights entrenched sexism and sclerotic bureaucracy.
Mushtaq does not hide her elegant face in public. She dares to adorn it with makeup. She covers her hair with a sheer white scarf, embroidered with delicate flowers, draped over her shoulders. Her voice is soft, but uncompromising.
And she packs a pistol.
"I can use it," she said with a steely smile.
She may have to. Last fall, Mushtaq received a night letter warning that she would be killed if she didn't quit her job and stay home.
"I said, 'Go ahead. Everything that you can do, I'm ready for it.' "
Friends and colleagues have tried to persuade her to give in to the threats. But Mushtaq feels the burden of a nation on her shoulders. She's afraid that if she surrenders, other women will give up too, and then everything they've gained will be lost.
And she has so much left to fight for.
"When we go to people and tell them, 'You should send your daughters to school,' they tell us, 'First you build a school, then we will send you our daughters,' " she said.
Over the last year, insurgents have killed a principal and one of his office staffers and burned more than a dozen of Ghazni's schools. Taliban threats have shut down at least 13 more, forcing their students to study in homes and mosques.
About half the province's schools have no buildings or tents, and 100,000 Ghazni students attend class in the open, many of them sitting in the broiling desert, Mushtaq said. Textbooks are in short supply everywhere.
But she insists on seeing the bright side.
"It's a bad situation with a good future," she said.
It takes a lot of optimism to see good things ahead for Ghazni villages such as Chaghatu, in a patch of windblown desert almost 100 miles southwest of Kabul. It is surrounded by barren, black mountains, a forbidding sanctuary for Taliban insurgents and their allies.
The villagers are ethnic Hazaras, who by one theory are descendants of Genghis Khan's Mongol army that invaded central Afghanistan in the 12th century. They have suffered persecution for generations, but after the Taliban's fall, they enjoyed a brief period of peace.
That changed a year ago when the insurgents suddenly grew stronger here. About 4 a.m. on May 29, marauders came down from the mountains and attacked Chaghatu's small school, just down the road from an Afghan army checkpoint.
A bomb placed in a storage room failed to explode, but ignited a fire that destroyed most of the books and part of the school. Villagers doused the flames with shovels of dirt and buckets of water, Principal Gul Mohammed said.
"There are a lot of motorcycles and cars passing us, and they are mostly Taliban or their informers," he said, with a worried eye to the dirt track that passes in front of his office window.
Twelve days before the attempted bombing, two men on a motorcycle passed by close to the gate about 5 p.m. One got off to warn the watchman that "girls should not go to school."
Some were moved the next day to a mosque. Several older girls remained in their regular classroom, where on a recent morning they still were studying. Sitting on floor mats, they were learning English.
"They are afraid of suicide attackers," the principal said. "They are afraid that someone might come into their class and explode or throw a grenade."
About 20 first-grade boys filled the scorched remains of the storage room, studying arithmetic under a burned-out ceiling, sitting on the floor in front of a blackboard propped against a charred wall. Other boys had their lessons in the hallway or outside on the hard dirt in the shade of a rear wall.
"Even though the school was burned, our students and teachers are more enthusiastic and they are still coming," said Mohammed Hassan, 25, the girls' cheery English teacher. "We won't be afraid of a single incident. A small warning cannot prevent us from teaching."
Mushtaq runs a department staffed by men, many of whom don't like working under a woman.
On a recent morning, one of her male staff members leaned over her large wooden desk and tried to browbeat her into returning a clerk she had shifted temporarily to another department. An elderly man in a turban demanded tents for his students. Several others reported new threats from the Taliban to kill teachers or burn schools and wanted to know what Mushtaq was going to do to protect them.
"It's the people's duty to protect their schools," she answered repeatedly, urging them to volunteer to guard the schools against Taliban attacks. "People have tried to persuade me to quit. I tell them, 'I'm a lady, but I'm strong and I'm brave.' "
Mushtaq had spent the morning fielding school security alerts on her cellphone, or from officials who traveled from remote villages.
Syed Dilawar, a 60-year-old clerk, joined the scrum of men pressing in around her desk. He had come more than 40 miles from a village in the desert of Qarah Bagh, to plead for protection from insurgents who were threatening to destroy his school.
He had traveled in a car with a woman and two other elderly men. Four Taliban guerrillas stopped them, and when they searched the car, they spotted the belt of Dilawar's satchel poking out from under the seat where he had tried to hide it. They found reports addressed to Mushtaq inside.
Dilawar acknowledged that the bag was his, and as the Taliban led him toward a nearby mountain, the female passenger, a stranger to him, fell at their feet, begging them not to kill him. The two male passengers added their appeals for mercy.
"I told them that I am the servant of the children of this country, and I am the servant of Afghan Muslims and I am the servant of Islam. I am the clerk that brings the salaries to the poor teachers of Ghazni," Dilawar said.
"Then they replied, 'You are not serving Islam, you are serving America, you are serving the infidels. You are misleading our children and you want them to become infidels too.' "
But the woman continued to cry, and on a forsaken stretch that some of the world's most powerful armies could not make safe, her tears were enough to spare Dilawar's life.
"She was the one who saved me," he said.
ONE of the children who saw Aref die was Saifullah, a 13-year-old third-grader with a gold pillbox Kandahari cap covered with tiny round mirrors that glint in the midday sun. Aref was his Pashto-language teacher.
Standing in the dirt yard where the educator was killed, the boy stretched his right arm behind his back, nervously clutching the crook of his left, and paid his slain teacher a simple tribute. "I liked him because he did not beat us," he said, adding almost as an afterthought: "And he was teaching very well."
Saifullah wants to be a doctor. His friend, Samidullah, 12, hopes to become an engineer. But the futures of millions of children, and of Afghanistan itself, in some measure depend on whether their schools continue to function.
Without education, the two boys here are more likely to be sucked back down into Helmand's swamp of war and drug trafficking.
Aref's own son, 10-year-old Mohammed Asif, goes to a nearby school that was recently renovated by an Afghan subcontractor working for the U.S. military. But within weeks, the paint was peeling again, the windowpanes were broken, and the concrete was cracking. The rebuilt road outside was also crumbling.
Afghans accuse the Americans of failing to keep their promise to fix the schools. "And then people think of them as real infidels," said the principal, Mohammed Rahim. The U.S. military said it was assigning engineers to repair teams to make sure it didn't happen again.
But engineering can't protect a school from a determined arsonist or bomber.
A few months after killing Aref, the Taliban guerrillas returned and set his school on fire. The flames destroyed the roof, melted window screens and blackened the mud-and-wattle walls.
In a hallway, an attacker used a piece of charcoal to write a lesson in bold Pashto.
"This is the country of betrayers," it said. "What good will it do you? We will discuss this in the next life and on doomsday."
Nearby, someone scrawled an apparent reply in smaller script: "Do you have hope for the country?"
And, as if to remove any doubt about his defiance, the writer added: "My country."