In December, the Taliban agreed to allow UNICEF to open thousands of informal schools in parts of Afghanistan controlled by the armed group. The Taliban-initiated school talks have been ongoing for the past two years, and originally grew out of negotiations over polio vaccination campaigns inside Taliban territory. The program will establish community-based classes, reaching as many as 140,000 children — both boys and girls.
Why would the Taliban — a group known for the systematic destruction of women’s access to education — not only agree to but initiate talks on the provision of education? The Taliban continues to fight the government of Afghanistan, and the armed group’s political goal remains unchanged: To reestablish a strict Islamist system of government, a shift that would probably reverse many of the rights granted to women in the 2004 post-Taliban Constitution.
The group is in negotiations with the Afghan government in a bid to end the country’s war. However, the Taliban did not get to the negotiating table through violence alone. Instead, the group waged a political campaign that required establishing support from Afghan citizens as well as a greater degree of international legitimacy — and both of these goals played into the recent decision to make a deal with UNICEF.
The Taliban seeks broader civilian support
The Taliban exercises control or influence over at least half of Afghanistan, and civilian support is important to the group’s efforts to further consolidate control. Often during civil wars, armed groups provide services to civilians to win their support — and gain access to food, shelter, recruits and information. While armed groups could use force to extract these resources from civilians, territorial control leads armed groups to expect sustained interactions with civilians — and armed groups generally find it more efficient to develop a less coercive relationship with communities under their rule.
That shift seems to be taking place in Afghanistan. With many Afghans — 87 percent, according to one survey — believing that women should have the same educational opportunities as men, the Taliban has faced pressure from communities to change its policies toward education, which barred girls and women from schools in the past. The Taliban’s change in strategy is in line with my research, which explains why armed groups tend to be pragmatic in their governance strategies, and how civilians often shape rebel governance. In Indonesia, for instance, religious leaders pushed GAM — an ethno-nationalist group that fought a war to form its own state — to adopt an increasingly religious agenda. This change helped the rebel group gain wider support from its religious constituency.
Communities in Afghanistan appear to be leveraging the Taliban’s need for support and finding new ways to push back on the armed group’s rules. Some experts attribute the shift in the Taliban’s narrative on girls’ schooling to pressure from communities that want their daughters to have access to education. These demands might have persuaded the Taliban to take a more flexible approach. In some cases, village elders made subtle threats that they would turn against the group and provide information to the Taliban’s foes if the Taliban did not respect the community’s wishes. However, pressure from civilians has its limits, and has in some cases been met with violence on the part of the Taliban.
The Taliban seeks international legitimacy
But there’s probably a second reason for the Taliban’s deal with UNICEF. Collaborating with organizations like UNICEF, political science analysis shows, can bolster the Taliban’s international legitimacy, carrying the symbolic significance of imitating a country’s external relations. Mullah Akhtar Mansour, a previous leader of the Taliban, reportedly was aware that the Taliban needed recognition from the international community to realize its political ambitions.
The Taliban recognized the consequences of being perceived as a pariah state in the 1990s. Despite the Taliban’s formal control of the government of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates formally recognized Taliban leadership. Two decades later, Taliban leadership has encouraged greater openness toward aid agencies, driven in large part by a hope for political recognition and an improvement in its public image.
The drawdown of international troops is probably central to the Taliban’s growing openness toward education. The Taliban has historically perceived education as an extension of the government and international forces. With the international troop presence now largely reduced, the Taliban may feel less threatened by foreign-funded activities like the opening of schools.
The dwindling numbers of foreign soldiers also means the Taliban can no longer generate civilian support through claims of defending Afghanistan from foreign invaders. Instead, the group might be trying to gain civilian support by demonstrating the group’s governing capacity. As the primary authority in many areas, the Taliban might see its civilian support erode when it actively prevents access to public services such as education.
The current negotiations also place an added spotlight on the Taliban, raising questions among Afghans about how Taliban leaders will govern at the local level. The Taliban may thus see these factors as presenting an ideal time for the group to take actions that will bolster its international legitimacy.
Despite the excitement surrounding the deal, it’s not clear whether this marks a clear break with past Taliban policy. The Taliban’s policies toward girls’ education remain inconsistent and somewhat unpredictable — local commanders’ approaches vary by personality and according to their relationship with the local community. As a teacher in Wardak province explained, “Today, [a Taliban official] tells you that they allow girls up to sixth grade, but tomorrow, when someone else comes instead, he might not like girls’ education.”
More broadly, despite the leadership’s rhetoric, the Taliban in the past has imposed tight restrictions on education for girls once they reach puberty, and it is difficult to find a secondary school open to girls in areas under Taliban control.
A related concern is whether the program will be successful in actually reaching girls in rural communities. There’s some evidence, however, that the community-based education strategy proposed by the deal has been effective in enabling girls to attend school in areas where they are unable to attend government schools because of insecurity, family resistance or community restrictions.
While a surprise to many, the Taliban’s deal with UNICEF suggests a growing recognition among Taliban leaders that the group will need to respond to the preferences of Afghans and the international community if it hopes to govern successfully.
Jori Breslawski is a postdoctoral research associate at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow Jori on Twitter: @BreslawskiJori