The Taliban: Friend to Education?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Shah Marai / AFP / Getty

Afghan Muslim students at the Hazrat-e-Bilal Madarasah religious school read the Koran in Kabul, March 23, 2006.

In its latest bid to promote the idea of a kinder, gentler Taliban, the insurgent movement announced Sunday that it would open schools in Afghanistan's war-torn southern provinces this spring. The announcement, which comes just a week after the capture of a prominent Taliban commander by coalition forces and of Taliban spokesman Dr. Hanif by Afghan security forces, shows that the insurgency is stepping up its military and propaganda effort to weaken the government of President Hamid Karzai. As a prelude to the spring offensive for which NATO-led coalition forces are bracing, the Taliban late last year released a 30-point code of conduct for its soldiers, prohibiting smoking, looting, and taking "young boys with no facial hair onto the battlefield or into their private quarters." The movement that once ruled Afghanistan at gunpoint has also written its own version of constitution for the country.

The education plan was announced on Sunday by Taliban chief spokesman Abdul Hai Muthmahien, who phoned the Associated Press to announce that the movement planned to spend $1 million to build schools in six provinces in which it had gained a foothold. "Taliban are not against education," he said. "The Taliban want Shariah [Islamic law] education." He also said that schools for girls would follow later, a promise that rings hollow considering that during the six years of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, not a single girl was allowed to attend school.

Since the Taliban was driven from power in 2001, some 5.4 million Afghan children have been enrolled in schools, including 1.6 million girls. But a devastating campaign of intimidation through school burnings and the killing of teachers has forced the closure of many schools in the southern provinces where the insurgency is strongest. "How can the Taliban say they want to build schools when they have already burnt 180, closed 396 and prevented the youth of the country from going to school?" says Education Minister Hanif Atmar. "What they are really talking about building is madrassahs [religious schools] and terrorist training grounds. They will take young boys and train them in killing and suicide attacks on our country."

The Taliban says its schools will offer an Islamically correct education, and will provide students with Taliban-era textbooks. Some of those textbooks, which can still be found in curio shops and bookstores in Kabul, teach children to count with Kalashnikovs, and to subtract by killing off members of rival groups.

The Taliban has long combined its armed actions with a campaign of intimidation aimed at preventing government institutions, such as schools, from functioning. But Sunday's announcement marks the first time since 2001 that the Taliban has promised its own social services to the population, in what appears to be a direct response to the Coalition and government reconstruction projects. "They really are masters of propaganda," says Joanna Nathan, Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group. "In reality they are offering the people nothing. They are still releasing hideous DVDs of beheadings in order to instill fear in the population. This school announcement is just a PR campaign."

Even though more than 7 million afghan children have yet to be enrolled in school, Education Minister Atmar is adamant that the government will not tolerate Taliban schools. "Any place of education controlled by the Taliban will be considered a terrorist training ground," he says. "The Afghan government has full legitimacy to take military activity on these places."