The Taliban’s latest about-turn

The Taliban’s latest about-turn

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The day girls in Afghanistan were to return to secondary school, the Taliban government abruptly changed course and announced their schools would remain indefinitely closed. Millions of girls beyond grade six were due to restart their education for the first time since the Taliban assumed power last year. But they were barred from doing so hours after schools briefly opened.

Predictably the action provoked an international outcry.  UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, “the failure by the Taliban authorities to reopen schools for girls above sixth grade is profoundly disappointing and damaging for Afghanistan.”  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, described the failure to adhere to commitments made repeatedly to be “deeply damaging for Afghanistan.” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said  if the decision “is not swiftly reversed it will profoundly harm the Afghan people and the Taliban’s ambition to improve their relations with the international community.” The US also canceled talks with a Taliban delegation that were due to take place this week in Doha. Statements by several other countries also denounced the action and called on the Taliban to reconsider.

The issue is bound to be raised in the upcoming meeting of the Troika Plus comprising the US, China, Russia and Pakistan. This will take place in China later this week along with a meeting of Afghanistan’s six immediate neighbors and Russia. Concern about this action is expected to be raised in these meetings and the Taliban will be told that the international community expects Kabul to reverse its decision.

What explains the Taliban government’s about turn on this count? There are credible reports that internal rifts between hardliners and pragmatists lie behind this decision to backtrack on the promise made many times to the international community. This pledge was reiterated in various meetings and forums including the Taliban’s engagement with a group of Western countries including the EU in Norway in January. Apparently, the Afghan cabinet’s majority had approved the reopening of schools but a directive from the Taliban’s supreme, spiritual leader Haibatullah Akhundzada put paid to this decision. This followed a meeting in Kandahar of the top leadership dominated by old guard hardliners.

The Taliban government has not helped itself by stirring a controversy and breaking a promise.

Maleeha Lodhi

Even the country’s education ministry was taken aback as only days earlier it had announced the opening of schools. A spokesman of the ministry confirmed in a Voice of America interview that the last-minute orders to prevent girls from attending school came from the Taliban leadership and the ministry was obliged to implement them. A senior Taliban spokesman later claimed unresolved issues relating to an ‘appropriate school uniform’ were the reason for the ‘delay’ and that schools would eventually open.

Whether or not this ban is rescinded in the weeks to come, what this action has already done is to raise afresh questions about how the Taliban aim to run the country given this throwback to their previous stint in power in the 1990’s when girls were barred from education. It has also cast a shadow over an upcoming high-level pledging conference co-hosted by the UN, UK, Qatar and Germany to raise funds to support the humanitarian response in Afghanistan. This virtual conference is to be convened by the UN Secretary General on March 31 and aims to raise $4.4 billion dollars in a flash appeal. This comes at a time when much of the western donor community’s focus is on the conflict in Ukraine and the refugee crisis it has triggered.

The Taliban government has not helped itself by stirring a controversy and breaking a promise. Anxious to secure humanitarian and economic help as well as recognition, the Taliban government’s latest move jeopardizes that. It also ignores the implication of the Ukraine crisis, which has led to 3.5 million refugees fleeing the country. This has a bearing on donor willingness to deliver assistance to Afghanistan as western donors now face competing funding demands.

But beyond humanitarian assistance, the Taliban’s action provides little incentive to the international community to have a policy conversation, much less take decisions, about longer-term help for the country – in development assistance, service delivery and addressing Afghanistan’s persisting liquidity crisis. Unless this happens and assistance is forthcoming, following an understanding between Kabul and the international community of what is needed for its resumption, the country’s ability to address its economic crisis will be at grave risk. With its stability clouded by uncertainty, this has serious repercussions for Afghanistan’s future.

If, as widely reported, the Taliban’s action is the result of a directive from the top and differences between hardliners and pragmatists, its implications go beyond girls’ education and will determine how the country is governed in the months and years to come. Meanwhile, girls in Afghanistan have been left with their aspirations unmet but their spirit is unbroken as they took to the streets in Kabul to demand their right to education.

- Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha

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