Taliban fighters swap weapons for books as hundreds return to school

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Kabul (AFP) – Gul Agha Jalali used to spend his nights planting bombs, hoping to target an Afghan government soldier or, even better, a foreign military.

These days, the 23-year-old Taliban member is studying English and has enrolled in a computer class in the capital, Kabul.

“When our country was occupied by infidels, we needed bombs, mortars and guns,” says Jalali, an employee of the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation.

Now there is a greater need for education, he told AFP.

Since the Taliban returned to power last August, hundreds of fighters have returned to school, either alone or pushed by their commanders.

The word “Taliban” actually means “students” in Arabic, and the name of the radical Islamist movement comes from the religious schools in southern Afghanistan from which it emerged in the 1990s.

Most Taliban fighters were educated in these madrassas, where studies are largely limited to the Quran and other Islamic topics.

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Many conservative Afghan clerics – especially among the Taliban – are skeptical of more modern education, apart from subjects that cannot be practically applied, such as engineering or medicine.

“The world is changing, we need technology and development,” said Jalali, who planted bombs for five years but is now one of a dozen Taliban studying computer science at the transport ministry.

“motivated Mujahideen”

The desire of fighters like Jalali to return to school shows that Afghans yearn for education, government spokesman Bilal Karimi said.

“Many motivated mujahedeen who had not completed their studies have turned to educational institutions and are now studying their favorite courses,” he told AFP.

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But education is a hugely problematic issue in the country, with secondary school girls barred from classes since the Taliban returned to power – and no sign they are being allowed to return despite promises from some leaders.

While the earlier curriculum remains largely the same, music and sculpture studies have been phased out in schools and universities, which are suffering from a shortage of teachers and lecturers following the exodus from educated elite of Afghanistan.

But some Taliban students, like Jalali, have big plans.

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The Kabul Muslim Institute has about 3,000 students, half of them women, and includes some 300 Taliban fighters, many of whom are distinguished by their bushy beards and turbans.

During a recent tour, AFP saw a Taliban fighter retrieve a pistol from a locker room at the end of his lessons – an incongruous sight in a pastel-colored room adorned with posters of smiling students.

“When they arrive, they hand over their weapons. They don’t use force or take advantage of their position,” said an institute official who requested anonymity.

Desire to study

Amanullah Mubariz was 18 when he joined the Taliban but never gave up his desire to study.

“I applied to a university in India but failed my English test,” said Mubariz, now 25, declining to reveal his current position in the Taliban.

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“That’s why I registered here,” he said, referring to the Muslim Institute.

Mohammad Sabir, on the other hand, is happy to admit that he works for the Taliban intelligence agency, although he is also a student at the private Dawat University.

“I resumed my studies this year after the victory of the Islamic Emirate,” he says, his long hair and his eyes lined with traditional kohl eyeliner protruding from under a white turban.

Like Jalali, he interrupted his studies to join the Taliban and also planted bombs and ambushed his brother in Wardak province.

All of the Taliban students interviewed by AFP said they wanted to use their education to help develop the country, so how do they feel about girls being denied this opportunity?

“Personally, as a young man, a student and a member of the Emirate, I think they have a right to education,” Mubariz said.

“They can serve our country like we do.”

“This country needs them as much as it needs us,” Jalali added.

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