Taliban government ministers thought the matter of girls’ education was settled. Schools for girls over sixth grade were set to reopen this past March, after months.
Then the Taliban’s religious council, dominated by ultraconservative clerics, scuttled the plan. Hours before school gates were supposed to reopen, it was announced that they would remain closed. Teenage girls who showed up to school in their uniforms were turned away.
The reversal drew widespread condemnation in Afghanistan—including from many Taliban members who took to social media to criticize it.
The outburst shook a movement that has stayed remarkably cohesive while fighting a two-decade insurgency against U.S.-led international forces and their Afghan allies. Now that the Taliban are in government, cracks are appearing on multiple fronts less than a year after it toppled the Western-backed Afghan Republic.
Taliban leaders are at odds over ideology: how to interpret Islamic law and how strictly to enforce it, including in schools. Rival factions are also feuding over power and the limited spoils of their victory.
Meanwhile, the country’s economic woes have angered some Taliban fighters, many of whom are struggling to feed their families, raising the possibility many will quit or defect to rival armed groups.
“A lot of mujahedeen have left the Taliban. It should be an alarm for them,” said Sherzad, a 28-year-old former commander of the Haqqani network, a branch of the Taliban, who said he quit because the leadership hasn’t done enough to fix the country’s economy and provide for its members. “If they don’t listen to us, many low-level Taliban will fight against them.”
Compounding the humanitarian hardship is a massive earthquake last week that killed at least 1,000 people and devastated communities in the rural eastern part of the country.
The Taliban insist the movement remains united. “There is no division whatsoever within the Emirate,” said the Taliban’s chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, using the group’s official name.
Girls’ education is on the agenda once again this week at a meeting of the religious council with tribal leaders and senior Taliban in Kabul. The meeting may lead to the school ban being lifted, said a Taliban official earlier this week.
The debate pits most of the Taliban’s political leadership against a small group of die-hard religious conservatives.
“When it comes to the topmost echelon, there are a few hard-liners,” said a person close to the Taliban leadership. “Apart from them, no one is opposed to the education of women.”
The opposition to girls’ education is rooted in cultural beliefs about women’s role in Afghan society. Particularly in the deeply conservative south, many girls rarely leave their homes after they reach puberty. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s, girls were barred from all education, including primary school. Now, girls’ primary schools are open, but high school is off limits for girls in most parts of the country.
Those in the Taliban with more moderate views, including many in government, argue there is no religious justification for banning teenage girls from school, so long as they are segregated from males.
The hard-liners have outsize influence on the Taliban’s ultimate decision maker, Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, according to Taliban members and others familiar with the group’s inner workings.
All Taliban factions remain loyal to Mullah Haibatullah, a former chief justice who took the helm of the movement in 2016. Since they came to power in August, senior Taliban officials took over ministerial positions in Kabul. But ultimate power remains in the hands of the reclusive Mullah Haibatullah, who rarely leaves Kandahar, the Taliban’s traditional heartland.
In rare public remarks delivered on Friday, Mullah Haibatullah stressed the need to overcome differences.
“Our survival depends on our unity,” he said at the meeting with the religious council. It was Mullah Haibatullah’s first-ever known trip to Kabul.
In his speech, he also said the religious council, or ulama, would take on a more prominent role in government and that “very pure and independent Shariah,” or Islamic law, would be implemented. He didn’t mention women.
Communication between the supreme leader’s circle in Kandahar and the government in Kabul is limited, often depending on written notes carried by messengers, a habit from the insurgency.
“The problem of the [education] framework was that it was created in Kabul and the leadership wasn’t kept in the loop,” said Sharif, a pseudonym for a Taliban insider who is one of the messengers. “Some of the ministers may get the idea that they are the biggest decision makers, forgetting about the leadership in Kandahar.”
A cabinet meeting held days before the schools were supposed to reopen in March illustrated the divide. Taliban government ministers traveled to Kandahar for what was only the second full meeting of the Taliban government attended by Mullah Haibatullah since last year’s takeover, according to several people briefed on the meeting.
Two ministers for education gave presentations on the planned school reopening. They were caught unprepared by unexpected opposition from the Taliban’s religious council, according to several people briefed on the meeting.
Shahbuddin Delawar, the minister of mines, spoke out in favor of reopening all girls’ schools, arguing that it would stabilize the new Taliban government. Women’s education is important both for domestic legitimacy and to obtain international recognition, he said, according to two of those people.
Mullah Haibatullah listened in silence. At the end of the meeting, he said the reopening of schools for teenage girls would be put on hold until further notice, according to people with knowledge of the Kandahar meetings.
In the weeks after Mullah Haibatullah decided to maintain the schooling ban, some senior Taliban urged him to reconsider. A commission was set up to draft a list of policy recommendations to enable all schools to reopen, which was submitted to Mullah Haibatullah.
Mullah Haibatullah isn’t opposed to girls’ education in principle, said Abdul Rahman Tayebi, an aide of the supreme leader. “But he’s against moral corruption,” he added. Several issues must be overcome, including girls’ dress, the need for female-only teachers for female students, and how girls would get to school and back without encountering unrelated males, said Mr. Tayebi. He also cited financial challenges.
“It is necessary for us to provide education to every man and every woman of this country,” said Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, in televised remarks in June. “Education is their natural, Islamic and Shariah right.”
In recent years, many Taliban officials in exile in Pakistan and Qatar sent their daughters to local schools and universities. After the takeover, some Taliban commanders brought their daughters to Afghanistan on the assumption they would be allowed to continue their education. Many were shocked by the decision in March.
“When I heard about it, I got very upset. If a woman is educated, she can educate the whole community,” said Hakimullah, a pseudonym for a neighborhood Taliban intelligence chief in Kabul. “It was a mistake, and they should rethink it,” he said. “This is a decision that concerns all Afghans, not just a few.”
Taliban members have also expressed anger publicly over an order by the leadership in May that all Afghan women should cover their faces in public.
“We shouldn’t hide the identity of women in society,” said Jawed Nizami, a 39-year-old Taliban commander from Paktia province. He said he would refuse to work for the government if it continued to impose limits primarily on women. “It’s also a man’s responsibility to not look at women he isn’t related to,” he said. “We shouldn’t lay all the blame at the feet of women.”
Particularly outspoken about girls’ right to education are the leaders and members of the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction that was responsible for some of the deadliest attacks during the war but whose members are comparatively moderate on social issues.
Anas Haqqani, a senior member of the network, said in May he was confident that teenage girls would soon be allowed back to school, in accordance with Islamic law and cultural values.
“If a matter isn’t prohibited by Islam and Shariah law…it should not be banned by an Islamic government,” Mr. Haqqani said in a televised address.
Two groups in particular are feuding over power.
On one side are Taliban from Kandahar and other southern provinces who are close to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban who remains one of its most important political leaders.
On the other is the Haqqani network, known for its military strength, rooted in the country’s east and centered around the family of the same name.
Tensions between the two factions surfaced early on over who deserves the credit for winning power last August.
Mullah Baradar, who negotiated the 2020 deal that paved the way for the U.S. withdrawal, cast it as a diplomatic victory. The Haqqanis, who long supplied the Taliban with suicide bombers from their religious schools, said the victory was achieved through fighting.
The southerners complain that military power is too concentrated in the hands of the Haqqanis, whose leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is serving as interior minister. The Haqqanis complain that the southerners have taken most other government jobs.
“The Haqqanis made more sacrifices. We gave more suicide bombers,” said a former Haqqani commander who recently left the Taliban. “But the Kandaharis get all the jobs.”
While the leadership squabbles, many ordinary Taliban fighters are becoming increasingly disenchanted.
Fighters who dedicated years, even decades of their life to the armed struggle say they expected to be rewarded for their sacrifices with jobs and money. Instead, they say they don’t even have enough money to buy food.
“I have given martyrs from my family, but I still have no salary,” said Qari Abdullah, a 40-year-old former Taliban commander who recently left the movement. “I have to feed 10 people. When we cook something, everyone fights over the food.”
Since the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s economy has nosedived, with 95% of the population not eating sufficiently according to the U.N. Frozen central-bank assets, international sanctions and a sharp drop in foreign assistance are contributing to the economic crisis.
The U.S., other Western countries and international organizations including the United Nations and the World Bank have said that the continued ban on girls’ education is an obstacle to unlocking more international assistance for Afghanistan.
The most formidable armed opposition group in Afghanistan is the local branch of Islamic State, which has long recruited members from disenchanted Taliban. Since the Taliban takeover it launched a spate of deadly attacks, mostly targeting Shiites.
There is also the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, an anti-Taliban group established after the fall of the Republic that includes some of its former leaders.
As it strives to build a new Afghan state under immense economic pressure, the Taliban leadership has sought to keep a lid on the differences. It has tried to stifle criticism by threatening its subordinates with lengthy prison sentences if they speak to the media.
“If we give room for religious debate, it may lead to other problems, such as strengthening terrorist groups,” said Sharif, the Taliban messenger.
The revived and much-feared religious police recently issued a raft of new social restrictions that many Afghans, including many Taliban members, oppose. Among them: Women must be accompanied by male relatives when traveling outside their hometowns; all male government workers must grow out their beards; and men and women can’t go to amusement parks on the same day.
Abdullah Omari, a 30-year-old regional director of the religious police, said that it is the Taliban’s duty to return Afghans to the righteous path they strayed from under foreign influence. “This cannot be a surprise to them,” said Mr. Omari. “They knew that when the Taliban came, there would be new rules.”