This time, the Times Education Supplement (TES) has the latest scoop about the Taleban. The article with the headline ‘Taliban “backs girls’ education”’ has already been picked up around the world. But it is worth to look at the source of the sensational statement. It is not from Mulla Omar’s ‘Quetta shura’ but from Kabul’s education minister and AAN’s Thomas Ruttig has a few question marks.
‘Discussions with the Taliban’ have ‘led to an agreement that girls were entitled to go to school’, Faruq Wardak, Kabul’s minister for education, told TES in an interview while visiting Britain. ‘The development would mark a major U-turn’ comments the paper because ‘the Taliban administration that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 [had] outlawed the education of girls, with serious repercussions for those found flouting the rule’.
The Taleban, usually quick on the media side, haven’t said anything about this yet, at the end of the (Afghan) day.
In Thursday’s Guardian (read thearticle here), a researcher with the Tribal Liaison Office confirmed that this summer it found ‘large numbers of girls’ schools open for business in the largely Taliban-controlled district of Chardara in Kunduz province’. Amir Mansory, an education expert at the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, said that
‘I personally think the Taliban are not against education but simply against a western type of education. And if local people want to educate their girls the Taliban know they can’t do anything to stop that.’
The Guardian also reports ‘that some local insurgent leaders have struck deals with [local representatives of] Wardak’s education ministry to keep schools open’.
But there are a few problematic points: First, Wardak apparently tries to create the impression that it was his government’s ‘discussions with the Taliban’ have made the later to adopt a more lenient political line on girls’ education. But, in fact, he doesn’t say this explicitly. Is the minister adorning himself with borrowed plumes?
Reports we have indicate that such behavioural changes – on whatever level – are mainly the result of pressure or petitions by the local population. In December, AAN had reported that the Taleban, in their Paktia stronghold of Zurmat, had requested for a midwife in a clinic run by the Kabul government but in the area controlled by them. The relevant ministry agreed, also on the Taleban’s 13 conditions: That the midwife must be accompanied by a mahram, a male companion from her family; that the clinics personnel was not allowed to contact the local US soldiers and that the soldiers were not allowed to enter the clinic; that women were to be treated at home so that they did not have to leave the house etc. (read the full blog on this here).
We heard the same about schools in neighbouring Ghazni province: The Taleban allow them but they set their conditions.
According to local sources, the Taleban have abandoned their ‘very hard stance against schools’ they had in general in 2008/09 for a more flexible approach under the pressure of the local population. It had started in Andar and Waghaz districts where the people pushed for the reopening of the schools that were closed for many years. Now, schools are said to be operating in all Pashtun (i.e. mainly Taleban-controlled) districts of Ghazni(*); in Andar, even girls’ schools are also said to be working. But the curriculum is not the government’s – it is developed by the Taleban. (They probably have teachers amongst their supporters.) At least one teacher at every school is named by the Taleban, or, if already there, is made their representative. He must clear all other teachers employed at his school. This resembles the days of the Emirate when the village mullas were made ‘the eyes and ears’ of the Taleban.
AAN which recently has looked into other aspects of the movement’s policies has also not been able to get hold of any official and detailed Taleban policy statement, on education, health or otherwise. Yes, there are indications from various areas of Afghanistan that the local Taleban have changed their attitude vis-à-vis education, and amongst it, here and there, vis-à-vis girls’ education (and other matters) as described above. It can also be assumed that – given the relatively strict top-down line of political instruction within their movement – its local leaders have the consent of at least some members of the Taleban’s higher echelons. Furthermore, surely the Taleban leadership also learns lesson from previous mistakes. The question, however, remains open: Are these tactical, gradual adaptations or genuine changes? (And: has there been a shift at all – and not just the confirmation by international media of a fact that was already known in Afghanistan?)
To me, its looks as gradual but slow change, maybe more than tactical. But what does that mean practically? Unless such policy shifts are not officially declared, always the possibility remains to backtrack or to declare it a ‘local deviation’.
The Taleban’s changes might also be a sign of a changed situation on the ground: In areas where they feel to be in control, they allow administrative and ‘governmental’ functions to be resumed. They consider themselves a government-in-waiting, after all, which only had been deposed by an illegal intervention from abroad. Reports about aid groups ‘trying to forge safe-passage agreements with insurgents’ (for example see a Wall Street Journal article dated 22 November 2010 on this here) and even registering with them fall into the same category.
On Kabul’s side, secondly, ‘progress reports’ about the Taleban changing their mind on certain things might be motivated by the intent to create a conducive public climate in favour of ‘reconciliation’. This might be stage 2 of last year’s ‘talks about talks’ wave. Therefore, let’s listen to minister Wardak’s own words again:
‘It is attitudinal change, it is behavioural change, it is cultural change. What I am hearing at the very upper policy level of the Taliban is that they are no more opposing education and also girls’ education. […] I hope, Inshallah, soon there will be a peaceful negotiation, a meaningful negotiation with our own opposition … and that will not compromise at all the basic human rights and basic principles which have been guiding us to provide quality and balanced education to our people.’
There we have strong indications for the assumption mentioned above: Kabul is trying to create further proof that it is in contact with the Taleban leadership, that talks are possible soon and even without the international communities’ ‘red lines’ – of which girls’ and women’s rights are an essential part, and very correctly so – being violated. But as long as it cannot be officially confirmed that the Taleban leadership has changed its policy on education, we should remain careful. The hurrah about Faruq Wardak’s TES interview shouldn’t be too excited yet.
In April 2011, IWPR updates on the issue in its report ‘ Taleban try soft power’ — read it here.
(*) reportedly with the exception of Abband (situation in early December)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020