The US was poised to put the Taliban on the path to diplomatic recognition before the plan was thwarted by Afghan rulers’ sudden denial of a promise to allow girls to educate, The Guardian understands.
The group sparked international outrage and embarrassment on Wednesday when it broke an agreement allowing teenage girls to go to high school, just a week after the education ministry announced schools would be open to all students.
American diplomats were so optimistic that the Taliban followed through on a promise that a joint event was planned in Qatar ahead of the Doha Forum this weekend, which would kick-start the process of granting diplomatic recognition to the group.
A seat was reserved for the Taliban in a girls’ education forum where a Taliban representative was to discuss the role of women with Afghan activists.
This sudden turn undermined the argument that the Taliban are now dominated by a more “moderate” leadership, and that optimism was further tarnished this weekend when the group ordered Afghan television networks to remove BBC Pashto, Persian and Uzbek news bulletins.
A BBC statement on Sunday said: “This is a disturbing development at a time of uncertainty and upheaval for the people of Afghanistan. Every week, more than 6 million Afghans watch independent and impartial journalism from the BBC on television.
Western officials have made it clear that diplomatic recognition will not be possible unless the decision to educate girls is reversed. The move would also make it harder for the international community to raise funds for next week’s international pledging conference, and would require stricter handling of all cash raised so that they don’t
Thomas West, the US special envoy to Afghanistan, said: “I was surprised by the turnaround last Wednesday and the world has reacted by condemning the move. First of all, this is an undermining of the confidence of the Afghan people.
“I believe that hope is not lost yet. I hope that in the coming days we will see the reversal of this decision.”
But West defended US engagement with the Taliban, saying a complete diplomatic break would mean giving up 40 million Afghans amid growing concerns about possible famine in the country.
“We are talking about the modalities of urgent humanitarian response, the need for more than a humanitarian response, the policy of not only admiring the problem of a dysfunctional banking sector but finding ways to fix it, the professionalization of the Central Bank so that the international financial community can start to trust it, we are talking about terrorism, and we’re talking about women’s rights.
“One of the first times we sat in an official setting in October, we were approached with a request: “Please return our civil servants – 500,000 – to work.” We thought that the logical place to start, given that this sector has received such resonance in the international community, was education. We also had requests for them. First, women and girls could participate at all levels in large areas of Afghanistan. Secondly, we wanted to see a monitoring mechanism and, thirdly, a serious and rigorous curriculum. In the months that followed, the international community received the necessary assurances, and more importantly, on March 23, the Afghan people were told that we would see girls attending secondary school, but this did not happen.”
Hosna Jalil, a former interior minister, was one of many Afghan women in Doha who said the Taliban would not be able to contain the demand for education. She said that the last 20 years have not been in vain, but have left a positive legacy. “We have raised a generation, two-thirds of the population, that knows what a better life looks like. That is why we will not give up. They are loud, they believe in freedom and democracy.”
Malala Yousafzai, who received the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for her fight for the right of all children to an education, told the Forum that times have changed since the Taliban first banned education for girls in 1996.
“It’s a lot harder this time around – that’s because women have seen what it means to be educated, what it means to be empowered. This time, it will be much harder for the Taliban to maintain a ban on girls’ education. They study in hiding. They are protesting in the streets. This ban will not last forever. They were waiting at the school gates in uniform and crying. The pursuit of education is the duty of every Muslim,” she said.
Dalia Fahmhi, an Afghan political science professor, said there were no girls in secondary schools in 1999. “After 15 years, there were 3.7 million girls. During this period, thousands of women became business owners. It cannot be shortened. We live in the digital age, 68% have cell phones and 22% are connected to each other and to the whole world. It cannot be shortened. 27% of parliament were women.”