In a dramatic, last-minute decision, the Taliban backtracked on its pledge to reopen high schools for girls in Afghanistan, in a move that has attracted global condemnation.
The U-turn came after the militant group repeatedly promised to allow all girls access to education, a key demand from the international community for any future recognition of the Taliban administration that seized power in August.
The about-face was so sudden that the Taliban’s Education Ministry was caught off guard on March 23, the start of the school year, as were schools in large parts of the country. Some female high-school students returned to class, only to be ordered to go home.
A notice later posted by the ministry said high schools for girls would be closed until a plan was drawn up in accordance with “Islamic Shari’a law and Afghan traditions and culture."
That's despite most Afghan schools in the deeply conservative and religious nation of 38 million already operating in gender-segregated classrooms, with female high-school students donning Islamic headscarves.
Observers said the policy reversal reflected rifts in the Taliban leadership, which was convening in the southern city of Kandahar amid reports of a possible cabinet reshuffle.
“The only way a sudden reversal like this takes place is a decision from the Amir,” said Barnett Rubin, an academic and former adviser to the U.S. State Department on Afghanistan.
He referred to Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who is the supreme leader or Amir ul-Momineen, the leader of the faithful. He has the final say under the Taliban’s clerically led system.
“Most of the leadership supports girls’ education, and that was the [initial] decision,” Rubin added. “[But] Akhundzada and a few others are said to be resisting [the reopening of girls’ high schools] despite the fact that they would benefit diplomatically from this.”
Rubin said Akhundzada likely opted to appease ultraconservatives within the Taliban.
Veteran aid worker Anders Fange ran the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, one of the most significant humanitarian projects in the country, for decades. He said retaining power and maintaining internal cohesion is the Taliban’s priority.
“They are obviously worried about internal tensions, and they try to avoid worsening these internal tensions,” Fange said, alluding to frictions between the Taliban’s relatively pragmatic political leaders and hard-line clerics and field commanders.
Hameed Hakimi, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank based in Washington, described the Taliban leadership as “risk adverse.”
“If reopening the schools means that their internal discussions become more fragmented and they have to deal with an extra thing that could become a headache for them, they would rather not deal with that,” he said.
Since the Taliban seized power, there have been rifts between the Taliban's relatively pragmatic political leadership and hard-line clerics who are bent on implementing their fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic law.
Those divisions have increased as the Taliban grapples with a series of political, social, and economic crises that have directly challenged its rule, including a freefalling economy and a devastating humanitarian crisis.
There is also believed to be growing competition between the Haqqani network -- a Taliban faction based in the east -- and a Kandahar-based faction of Taliban co-founders in the south of the country.
Those rifts are reflected in the Taliban’s uneven policies.
During its first stint in power in the 1990s, the Taliban deprived all girls and women of education. After the Taliban toppled the Western-backed Afghan government last summer, it allowed girls from grades one to six to attend school. The group also permitted women to go to university, although it enforced a strict dress code and gender segregation.
At the same time, the militants have reimposed some of their former draconian policies, including limiting the movement of women and their access to employment.
Hakimi said many Taliban field commanders believe they won the nearly 20-year war against international troops in Afghanistan and do not need to conform to the expectations of outsiders.
Hakimi said the militants could also be trying to use girls' education as a bargaining chip to gain international recognition and aid.
The Taliban’s move rattled international humanitarian agencies, rights groups, and diplomats. It also sparked heartbreak among many Afghans.
Sam Mort, a spokeswoman for the United Nations children's fund (UNICEF) in Afghanistan, said the organization had spent months coordinating the reopening of girls’ high schools with the Taliban’s Education Ministry.
Mort said that under a European Union funded project, UNICEF is paid more than 194,000 Afghan schoolteachers their salaries for January and February. The agency has already distributed more than 2 million textbooks and plans to distribute an additional 36 million.
“The sudden U-turn blindsided all of us and it has especially blindsided children," Mort said. "It is a major setback for children in Afghanistan.”