U-turn at school reveals tensions between Taliban

The closure of secondary schools for girls shows that the Taliban movement’s direction remains determined by its most radical fringe and exposes its divisions, which experts say is hurting Afghanistan’s chances of getting much-needed aid.

In an unexpected turnaround, the Taliban, who have been in power since August, closed girls’ high schools and colleges on March 23, just hours after their long-heralded reopening.

This reversal provoked the outrage of the international community, but left even the most modern component of the Taliban in disbelief, aware that it could affect their ability to obtain from the West the financial aid Afghanistan requested.

“That order was devastating. The supreme leader himself intervened,” said a senior Taliban official who, like all Taliban sources interviewed by AFP, remained on condition of anonymity.

This decision was taken after a secret meeting of Taliban leaders in Kandahar (south). No official reason has been given to justify this, the Taliban merely recalling that girls’ education must be in accordance with Sharia, Islamic law, of which they defend an extremely strict version.

The movement’s supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, and several others “are ultra-conservative on this issue” and had the final say, the same senior Taliban official explains.

“The ultraconservatives have won this game,” he says, referring to a group of clerics that include Supreme Court President Abdul Hakim Sharai, Minister for Religious Affairs Noor Mohammad Saqeb, and Minister for the Promotion of Virtue and preventing Vice President Mohammad Khalid Hanafi.

– Restore Kandahar’s Influence –

They have felt left out of government decisions, and opposing girls’ education is their way of restoring their influence, says Ashley Jackson, an expert on Afghanistan.

“The excessive influence of this disconnected minority” prevented the government from applying a measure approved by the vast majority of Afghans and most Taliban leaders, she adds.

“This shows that Kandahar remains the center of gravity for Taliban policy,” said Graeme Smith, analyst at the International Crisis Group. Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan, is the cradle of the Taliban, who made them the epicenter of their previous regime (1996-2001).

The ultra-conservatives are also trying to appease the thousands of Taliban fighters from the country’s most conservative rural areas, the same senior Taliban official points out.

“For them, it is immoral for a woman to leave her home. So imagine what it means to raise them,” he says.

The supreme leader himself is opposed to “modern, secular education,” which he associates with life under Western-backed former Afghan presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani.

The Taliban regained power in Afghanistan in August, ending a 20-year occupation by the United States and its allies, which they ousted in 2001.

In these two decades, Afghan women who lost almost all rights under the previous Taliban regime have gained new freedoms, returning to school or applying for jobs in all occupations, even if the country has remained socially conservative.

– Hard hit for humanitarian aid –

Activist Tafsir Siyaposh notes that Afghan girls have always studied in single-sex classes and followed an Islamic curriculum. The school ban shows that the Taliban only wanted to “suppress women’s rights with pretexts,” she accuses.

Another Pakistan-based Taliban source confirmed to AFP these disagreements between Taliban leaders on the issue of education, but dismissed any risk of fragmenting the group.

“There is a debate about this issue (…), but we are trying to settle our differences,” she says.

For analysts, however, this reversal of the school is a blow to the Taliban’s efforts to be recognized by the international community and receive the humanitarian aid it needs.

According to Ashley Jackson, neither Hibatullah Akhundzada nor those close to him have “fully understood and assessed” the implications of this decision for the international community, which links possible recognition of the Taliban government to its respect for women’s rights.

Even senior Taliban officials agree with this analysis. “We tell them (the ultraconservatives) that running a country is not the same as running a medrese,” a madrassa, one of them, from Kandahar, told AFP.

“Everything was going well until this tough decision came. It came from our Emir, so we have to apply it, but we’re trying to change it,” he adds.

The Taliban’s stance on education makes foreign governments less lenient towards them, argues Graeme Smith.

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