School’s Out in the Taliban’s Afghanistan

The Taliban say modern education is of no use as the country heads toward economic meltdown and starvation.

October 8, 2021 (Foreign Policy)—Education has, for all intents and purposes, been put to the stake in the Taliban’s new Afghanistan. The extremist rulers have declared modern learning irrelevant, banned girls from going to school, and say the religious curriculum taught at madrassas is the only scholarship the country needs.

Since the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan on Aug. 15, they have reintroduced strict controls on personal freedoms, concentrating on the minutiae of women’s clothing and the length of men’s beards rather than tackling the larger needs of governance like sorting out banking paralysis, a food crisis, and an energy crunch. But while the Taliban need trained minds to come to grips with a country in a death spiral, the group is making education its next target.

Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the Taliban’s acting higher education minister, said this week that qualifications earned in the past 20 years—as the international community invested billions of dollars in development—are of no use to the country, even as it slips into economic meltdown and humanitarian catastrophe. In a meeting with university faculty, he said modern studies were “less valuable” than religious subjects taught at madrassas, Islamic religious schools, and said his ministry would hire teachers with “values” that are useful to Afghanistan, an apparent reference to the Taliban’s as-yet-undisclosed interpretation of sharia.

The Taliban’s attitude toward education harks back to the group’s prior rule, from 1996 to 2001, when platitudes such as the “safety” of girls in classrooms were used as excuses for marginalizing women from all activity and relegating them to sub-citizen status. Observers fear not only that those old refrains are returning but also that the Taliban offensive against education threatens to shut down all schooling, for all genders, at nearly all levels.

“The Taliban wants an education system that conforms with the Taliban’s ideologies and values, and to this end they have set about destroying Afghanistan’s higher education institutions, and reshaping the education landscape the way they want,” said Weeda Mehran, an expert in conflict at the University of Exeter.

The Taliban approach to education was perhaps made clearest by Education Minister Molvi Noorullah Munir, who said: “No Ph.D. degree, master’s degree is valuable today. You see that the mullahs and Taliban that are in power have no Ph.D., M.A., or even a high school degree, but are the greatest of all.”\”

Education had been considered one of the success stories of the aid-funded years after the Taliban’s last attempt to rule the country was cut short by U.S. invasion after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Last year, the World Bank said that 67 percent of boys and 48 percent of girls were enrolled in school. School enrollment in Afghanistan went up ninefold under international tutelage. That was up from close to zero access to education for girls under previous Taliban rule, and many students, educators, and human rights advocates say the country is now heading in the same direction.

Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said the Taliban have already made “a big concession by allowing girls to go to primary school, which they didn’t last time, and they might feel this is more than enough.” Barr said she hoped the Taliban would use girls’ education as leverage for concessions from Western countries, such as diplomatic recognition, unfreezing of financial assets, or aid to alleviate an impending starvation crisis as winter nears.

But factional political considerations are likely to take precedence as the Taliban seek to prevent their more hard-line supporters from defecting to the local franchise of the Islamic State group, known as the Islamic State-Khorasan. That group has attracted followers disillusioned with the Taliban’s decision to negotiate with former U.S. President Donald Trump, even though the bilateral deal struck in 2020 led to the group’s victory this year. Further concessions by the Taliban in the treatment of women could drive more followers into the embrace of the Islamic State, which the Taliban have declared an enemy.

Statements from Taliban leaders calling for patience regarding education spell despair for students, especially girls and women who after four decades of war account for more than half the population of an estimated 38 million people.

One 21-year-old woman, who spoke on condition she not be identified, said she chose to study psychology at a Kabul university because she wanted to help people deal with mental health issues.

“An enormous number of people in Afghanistan suffer from depression, suicidal tendencies, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, all related to the war,” she said. “Our country has been a battlefield since the 1970s, and I wanted to be a part of changing our society. I volunteered at clinics and had one more year to go before graduation. Now all that has been destroyed by the Taliban.”

She has enrolled at the University of the People, a nonprofit U.S.-accredited distance education institute that has offered scholarships to Afghan students to help them continue their studies. Its founder and president, Shai Reshef, said the university has offered 1,000 scholarships to Afghan women and is raising money to offer another 1,000. “We think that preventing women from [accessing] education for whatever reason must be addressed,” he said.

Access to online classes could become moot, however, as the Taliban have not paid Central Asian countries for power supplies or yet started collecting payments for electricity service from consumers. Kabul residents say extreme power shortages leave them without electricity most of the day, most days. With around $10 billion in financial assets frozen by the United States, neither the Taliban nor ordinary citizens have access to cash, and urban residents say that prices for basic foodstuffs are soaring beyond affordability.

For the mullah-packed Taliban government, the challenge—to somehow harness and eviscerate higher education at the same time—is brought home by the tales of those in hiding.

A student who graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in business from the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul described himself as “jobless and hopeless.” He is in hiding, he said, as the Taliban had threatened students and faculty of the university because it was established and funded by the United States with the “mission of creating future leaders.” The campus was occupied within an hour of the Taliban entering Kabul on Aug. 15, he said.

“They said, ‘American wolves were trained here,’ and the university ‘spreads the voice of Christianity,’ which gives you an idea of their attitude,” the student said.

The campus was looted and trashed, is still occupied by Taliban gunmen, and will probably become a madrassa. “They are still going after the students and teachers, and beating them up, so I stay at home for my own safety,” he said.

Mehran, who grew up under the Taliban before leaving the country to pursue her own education, said it would take years, if not generations, to undo the damage.

“It is easy to destroy, but much, much harder to rebuild,” she said.