The AP interview: Taliban pledge to send all girls to school soon

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers hope to open all schools to girls across the country after the end of March, their spokesman told The Associated Press on Saturday, offering the first timeline for meeting a key demand from the international community.

Since the Taliban took power in mid-August, girls in most parts of Afghanistan have not been allowed to go to school past the 7th grade. The international community, reluctant to officially recognize a Taliban-led government, fears it could impose tough measures similar to those during its previous rule 20 years ago. At that time, women were excluded from education, work and public life.

Zabihullah Mujahid, who is also the Taliban’s deputy culture and information minister, said their education departments are trying to open classrooms for all girls and women after the Afghan New Year, which begins on March 21. Afghanistan, like neighboring Iran, observes the Islam Solar Hijri Shamsi calendar.

Education for girls and women “is a matter of capacity,” Mujahid said in the interview.

Girls and boys must be completely separated in schools, he said, adding that the biggest obstacle so far has been finding or building enough dormitories or hostels for girls to stay in while they go to school. In densely populated areas, having separate classrooms for boys and girls is not enough – separate school buildings are needed, he said.

“We are not against education,” Mujahid said in a marble-floored office building in Kabul that once housed the offices of Afghanistan’s Attorney General and that the Taliban have taken over for their culture and information ministry.

The dictates of the Taliban have so far been unpredictable and varied from province to province. Girls are not allowed in government school classrooms beyond the 7th grade, except in about 10 of the country’s 34 provinces. In the capital, Kabul, private universities and high schools have continued to operate uninterrupted. Most are small and classes have always been separate.

“We are trying to resolve these issues by next year” so that schools and universities can open, Mujahid said.

The international community is skeptical of the Taliban’s announcements and says it will judge them by their actions – even as it scrambles to allocate billions of dollars to avert a humanitarian catastrophe the UN chief warned this week could cause it could endanger the lives of millions.

With supplies collapsing during the bitterly cold Afghan winters and electricity being sporadic, most people rely on firewood and coal for heating. Most affected are about 3 million Afghans who live as refugees in their own country because they fled their homes because of war, drought, poverty or fear of the Taliban.

Earlier this month, the United Nations launched a $5 billion appeal for Afghanistan, the largest single appeal for any country.

Washington has spent $145 billion on reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime. But even before the Taliban retook the country, the poverty rate was 54% — and a 2018 Gallup poll found unprecedented misery among Afghans.

Mujahid called for economic cooperation, trade and “stronger diplomatic ties”. So far, neither Afghanistan’s neighbors nor the United Nations seem willing to grant any formal recognition that would help open up the Afghan economy. However, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for greater economic development, saying it was crucial to quickly inject liquidity into the Afghan economy “and avoid a meltdown that would lead to poverty, hunger and misery for millions”.

The international community has called for a more representative government that includes women as well as ethnic and religious minorities. While all members of the new Taliban cabinet are men and most Taliban members are exceptions such as the deputy finance minister and officials in the economy ministry who hail from the previous US-backed government, Mujahid said.

Mujahid also said that 80% of the officials who returned to work were employees under the previous government. Women work in the health and education sectors and at Kabul International Airport in customs and passport control, he added. He did not say if or when women would be allowed to work in government departments again.

He also told the AP that most of the new government’s revenue will come from tariffs collected by the Taliban at border crossings with Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian states to the north. Without providing figures, he claimed that the Taliban had generated more revenue in the first four months of their term than the previous government had in over a year.

He appealed to the Afghans who had fled to return to their homeland. Since taking power, there have been instances of opponents being arrested, journalists being beaten, human rights activists being threatened and demonstrations by women being broken up by heavily armed Taliban troops firing into the air.

Mujahid acknowledged incidents of Taliban members harassing Afghan civilians, including humiliating young men and forcibly cutting their hair.

“Such crimes happen, but it is not our government’s policy,” he said, adding that those responsible have been arrested.

“That is our message. We have no quarrels with anyone and we don’t want anyone to stay in the opposition or leave their country.”

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Kathy Gannon, Associated Press news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has covered the region for more than 30 years. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Kathygannon

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