The Taliban said they will open their own schools in areas of southern Afghanistan under the group's control, an apparent effort to win support among local residents and undermine the Western-backed government's efforts to expand education.
The announcement follows a violent campaign by the fundamentalist Islamic group against state schools in the five years since its ouster by U.S.-led forces. The Taliban destroyed 200 schools and killed 20 teachers last year, and President Hamid Karzai said Sunday that 200,000 children had been driven from the classroom.
The Taliban's announcement that they will open schools "is like putting salt into the wound," said Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan's education minister.
Abdul Hai Muthmahien, the purported chief spokesman for the militants, said the group will begin providing Islamic education to students in March in at least six southern provinces, funded by $1 million allotted by the Taliban's ruling council. He said textbooks would be the same ones used during Taliban rule.
He also said education would be available to boys first and later to girls, but he did not explain if there had been a change in Taliban thinking about schooling girls. During its rule, the hardliners banned girls from schools in Kabul, the capital, although elsewhere they sometimes permitted their schooling until age 8 -- but only to study the Quran, Islam's holy book.
Muthmahien said the program had been approved by tribal elders in the region.
"The U.S. and its allies are doing propaganda against the Taliban," he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press from an undisclosed location late Saturday. "The Taliban are not against education. The Taliban want Shariah (Islamic) education."
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan derided the announcement, saying it could not be taken seriously.
"No one can say the Taliban has a particularly good track record in developing Afghanistan's schools," U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique said.
The Taliban's attacks on state schools in the past few years have chipped away at one of the main successes of Afghanistan's democratic revival: a huge foreign-funded development drive that has seen a fivefold increase in the number of children attending school.
According to a report by the aid group Oxfam late last year, more than 5 million boys and girls attend school in Afghanistan, up from less than a million students during Taliban rule. The report said, however, that 7 million children still did not receive any formal instruction.
Challenge to elected government
Analysts said the Taliban's announcement appeared aimed at undermining the standing of Karzai's elected government and challenging its power in southern areas where insurgents have a foothold. It's the first time since the militia's ouster that it has claimed to want to provide social services.
"They are trying to portray themselves as a real alternative government, not just an insurgent group. They are trying to undermine the government's legitimacy," said Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University's Center on International Cooperation.
"They recognize that Afghanistan has changed. The people desperately want their children to be educated, including girls in most cases, even in conservative tribal areas. The Taliban attacks on schools are very unpopular, and they are trying to win the hearts and minds of the people by showing they share their priorities."
People in the affected regions had mixed reactions about the Taliban plan.
In the southern district of Panjwayi, badly affected by fighting between Taliban and NATO forces, Ahmad Jan Aqa said he sends two of his six sons to a regular school and a religious school, but would not send them to Taliban schools for fear they would become militants.
‘Our religion teaches peace’
"I send my sons to madrassa to learn the holy Quran," said the 50-year-old father of eight. "But the (state) school is necessary for them to become engineers and doctors to help our people. If my sons go only to madrassa, they then will become as conservative as the Taliban, always fighting and destroying the country."
Another Panjwayi villager, Pir Mohammad, said he wanted only religious education for his sons.
"I would like to send my sons to madrassa, not to school, and I want them to get an Islamic education because our religion teaches peace and how to live with your neighbor," he said.