How to protect the hope for girls’ education in Afghanistan

(Reposted from: Council on Foreign Relations. April 13, 2022)

By Melissa Skorka

Since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan six months ago, the educational dreams of millions of girls have been dashed. In late March, the group reneged on its promise to allow Afghan girls to attend secondary school. Although it has allowed some women and girls to return to the classroom, the Taliban has begun retooling the curriculum to prioritize religious studies and imposed harsh restrictions on how female students must dress, travel, and even talk on the phone.

If history is any guide, the Taliban will continue using Afghan girls’ education as a bargaining chip on political matters such as international recognition, financial sanctions, and aid. Nevertheless, the United States and its partners can still assist Afghan women, young people, and ethnic minorities who, in the face of Taliban intransigence, still seek an education. Today, many Afghans are turning to advanced technology, including satellite internet and virtual private networks, not only to maintain access to education but also to secure privacy where the Taliban forbid women and girls to study. While limited, virtual school for select Afghan university students in public institutions and local organizations are still operating against the odds.

Afghanistan’s future stability will depend on its ability to reconcile the priorities of the many competing factions and interests within the country. The United States, European Union, and other regional powers should request UNESCO or UNICEF to appoint a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador charged with implementing a steadfast name-and-shame policy aimed at the Taliban to promote peace through education, even where Russia, China, and Iran stay silent. The UN Ambassador should establish a multilateral forum that improves coordination, collaboration, and cooperation among regional powers to invite up-and-coming Afghan teachers and students—whether they remain in Afghanistan or are residing abroad—to live and study conflict resolution at foreign embassies, diplomatic institutes, and universities in South Asia and beyond.

The Role of the Haqqanis in the Taliban’s Education Policy

The Taliban’s war on women’s education is reminiscent of its reign in the 1990s, when the group imposed extreme teachings by force. It largely confined women to their homes, with a fortunate minority of girls able to attend underground schools. Now, the drive to restrict women’s education is led by the Haqqani network, a faction of the Taliban more ideologically strident and violent than any that existed in the 1990s. For years, the Haqqanis have cultivated ties to al-Qaeda and to some elements of the Islamic State’s Afghanistan affiliate, known as the Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K), even facilitating some of ISIS-K’s terrorist attacks in the Afghan capital, including recent activity against Kabul University, a maternity ward, and a girls’ school.

The Haqqanis, designated by both the United States and United Nations as terrorists, have emerged as the dominant force in the Taliban government. The group’s leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, heads the powerful Interior Ministry, where he wields control over the nation’s domestic intelligence and military apparatus. A member of Sirajuddin’s network, Abdul Baqi Haqqani, acting Minister of Higher Education, where he is reorganizingAfghanistan’s education system around a strict interpretation of sharia law, imposing curriculum changes, segregating genders in schools, and imposing stringent restrictions on dress and conduct for girls and women.

In addition to controlling key state institutions, the Haqqanis control a vast international business empire, licit and illicit, and have long enjoyed the backing of other states in the region that view them as a strategic asset. In contrast to the Taliban Political Commission in Doha, the Haqqani-dominated Taliban Military Commission had grown less dependent on Western aid in recent decades and is therefore relatively less susceptible to Western leverage on matters of security, human rights, and education.  They also remain at the forefront of orchestrating campaigns to kill former Afghan government officials and civilians, resulting in the flight of judges, journalists, teachers, and other leaders on whom Afghanistan’s emergent civil society depends.

The vast majority of Afghan teenage girls have already lost a year of education.

“The vast majority of Afghan teenage girls have already lost a year of education,” Heather Barr, associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, stated in an interview with this author in February, 2022.

How the United States Can Help

Although the Taliban’s political commission could reform its education policies to gain international legitimacy or aid, it will likely not overrule Sirajuddin Haqqani where he maintains a dissenting opinion.  Even if the Taliban Military Commission remains ensconced in the government, there are other ways in which the United Nations, major and regional powers, and international technology organizations can empower women and girls to make their own choices about ensuring equal rights and education, and live the highest, fullest version of their lives.

First, the United States, European Union, and other regional powers should call on UNESCO and UNICEF to appoint a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador to lead a renewed push for promoting peace through education, while executing an international name-and-shame policy highlight the Taliban’s failed promise to support Afghan girls’ return to school. The UN Ambassador should facilitate multilateral coordination for regional powers to invite up-and-coming Afghan teachers and students—whether they remain in Afghanistan or are residing abroad—to live and study conflict resolution at foreign embassies, diplomatic institutes, and universities in South Asia and beyond. An emphasis on peace education can help prepare Afghans for next-generation leadership on which any fragile interfaith dialogue, nonviolent dispute resolution, and advanced negotiation will depend. Even in minimal form, such a peace-through-education residency program would create a pipeline of leaders skilled at navigating ideological, political, and cultural differences—precisely the skills Afghanistan’s future leaders will need if they are to create a more stable and secure future order. At least half of the international scholarship recipients should be women who have finished their high school or university education, in order to provide a tangible incentive for Afghan women to persevere through secondary school.

In addition, the Ambassador should facilitate a multilateral consultation mechanism that brings together female education leaders and international technology companies to map the virtual school landscape and improve access to online classroom platforms, such as computer assisted instruction and massive open and free courses in Afghan languages based on geopolitical exigency. Information blockades are likely inevitable in Afghanistan in the future, particularly as China has been aggressively trying to sell or gift its advanced Great Firewall Internet filtering and monitoring software to countries in the region. When designed properly, enhanced access to virtual private networks and encrypted online classrooms can help Afghans evade such firewalls and circumvent the Taliban’s extreme ideology, values, and laws—or simply gain access to school.

By taking these actions to support education of all Afghans, the United States and its allies can promote the aspirations of such next-generation leaders. Fereshteh Forough, who organizes virtual classrooms for women and girls, explains the potential impact of such programs: “Digital citizens can surpass the ideological bent geographical boundaries, preserving women’s rights in the struggle for freedom and security. Gaining such liberation today is possible almost only through education technology, for it keeps our identity private and enables us to connect with the global economy. Virtual classrooms give us hope, for they make our simple goal, to study, a reality, even as the Taliban aim to take away the basic human rights we have fought so hard to gain.”

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Dr. Melissa L. Skorka is a Senior Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Changing Character of War Centre. She served as a Senior Adviser to the former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Joseph F. Dunford in the Haqqani Fusion Cell and the International Security Assistance Force from 2011 to 2014.

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