Equipped with a science laboratory, library, and computer lab, the Abdul Hai Habibi High School was considered one of the most modern and prestigious government schools in southeastern Afghanistan.
But since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, the secular school in the city of Khost has been converted into a madrasah, or religious seminary, forcing many of its 6,000 students and 130 teachers to leave.
"It has upset people," Sainullah Siyal, a graduate of the school, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "It is wrong to turn secular schools into madrasahs.”
Abdul Hai Habibi is among the dozens of state schools, public universities, and vocational training centers that the Taliban has turned into Islamic seminaries across the country.
Critics say the aim of the Islamist militant group is to root out all forms of the modern secular education that thrived in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban’s first regime.
Transforming Afghanistan’s education system has been one of the Taliban’s main goals since it regained power. The militants have banned girls from attending high school, imposed gender segregation and a new dress code at public universities, and vowed to overhaul the national curriculum. The Taliban has also unveiled plans to build a vast network of madrasahs across the country’s 34 provinces.
Madrasahs have a special place in the Taliban’s worldview. The word "taliban" means students of madrasahs. Many members of the Taliban, which first emerged in the 1990s, studied at radical Islamic seminaries in neighboring Pakistan.
During the Taliban’s brutal rule from 1996-2001, the group banned secular education and replaced it with religious schooling. No girls were allowed to go to school and women could not attend university. The Taliban-run madrasahs promoted militant ideologies and taught boys to recite the Koran from memory.
During its nearly 20-year insurgency, the Taliban reestablished its madrasahs in mostly rural areas under its control. It also bombed or burned secular schools in government-held territory.
'A Major Tragedy'
A teacher in eastern Afghanistan, who spoke to Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said the Taliban was converting training centers for teachers into madrasahs. He said the centers, which follow the existing curriculum devised by the former government, provided training to new teachers. Each province has at least one training center for teachers.
"In certain provinces, the [Taliban’s] Education Ministry has already handed over training centers to be converted into jihadist madrasahs," he said.
He said the Taliban has already converted training centers in the northern province of Baghlan and the eastern province of Kunar into madrasahs.
"This is a major tragedy and amounts to a war on education," another teacher in eastern Afghanistan, who also requested anonymity due to safety concerns, told Radio Azadi. "The Taliban's attitude towards education is destructive."
The Taliban, however, has showed no sign of halting its policy.
Earlier this month, the Taliban transformed the offices of Metra, a private television station in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, into a madrasah.
Noorullah Munir, the Taliban's education minister, has said that religious education is a priority for the group.
"We have 20,000 [secular] schools across Afghanistan, but the seminaries registered with the Islamic Emirate are not more than 1,000," he was quoted as saying by the private TOLOnews television station, using the official name of the Taliban government.
Earlier this month, the ministry announced plans to build state-run madrasahs accommodating 1,000 students in each province.
"The claims that we are converting schools into madrasahs are incorrect," Aziz Ahmad Rayan, a spokesman for the Taliban’s Education Ministry, told Radio Azadi. "[Secular] schools are important in their own right."
Rayan said the aim of the plan is to prevent Afghan students from seeking religious education abroad. Over the years, many Taliban fighters have studied at hard-line madrasahs in Pakistan that are often blamed for providing foot soldiers for militant groups in the region.
But Afghans are not convinced. Mohammad Mohiq, an Islamic scholar, accused the Taliban of employing "social engineering." He said the Taliban has a systematic plan to "brainwash" the next generation in madrasahs by undermining secular schools.
"This way, they can keep recruiting [madrasah] students to be their soldiers and build a medieval theocratic system,” he said.