Kandahar, Afghanistan The Taliban said they will open their own schools in areas of southern Afghanistan under their 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 whether there had been a change in Taliban thinking about schooling girls. During its rule, it banned girls from schools in Kabul, the capital, although elsewhere it 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 couldn't 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.
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.