Gul Agha Jalali spent his nights planting bombs, hoping to hit an Afghan government soldier, or better yet, a foreign soldier.
The 23-year-old Taliban is now studying English and has enrolled in a computer science course in the capital, Kabul.
“When our country was occupied by infidels, we needed bombs, mortars and cannons,” says Jalali, an official at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation.
Now there is a greater need for clarification, he told AFP.
Since the Taliban returned to power in August last year, hundreds of fighters have returned to school – either on their own or urged by their commanders.
The word “Taliban” actually means “students” in Arabic, and the hardline Islamist movement takes its name from the religious schools in southern Afghanistan from which it emerged in the 1990s.
Most Taliban fighters were trained in these madrassas, where study is largely limited to the Koran and other Islamic subjects.
Many conservative Afghan clergy – especially among the Taliban – are skeptical about more modern education, apart from practical subjects such as engineering or medicine.
“The world is evolving, we need technology and development,” said Jalali, who planted bombs for five years but is now one of a dozen Taliban studying computers at the Ministry of Transport.
– “Motivated Mujahideen” –
The desire of fighters like Jalali to go back to school shows Afghans yearn for education, government spokesman Bilal Karimi said.
“Many motivated mujahideen who had not yet completed their studies turned to educational institutions and are now studying their favorite courses,” he told AFP.
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 of allowing them to return, despite promises by some in the leadership.
While the earlier curriculum has remained largely the same, the study of music and sculpture has been phased out in schools and universities suffering from teacher and faculty shortages following the exodus of Afghanistan’s educated elite.
But some Taliban students, like Jalali, have big plans.
Kabul’s Muslim institute has a student body of around 3,000 – half of them women – and includes some 300 Taliban fighters, many with their bushy beards and turbans.
On a recent tour, AFP saw a Taliban fighter retrieve a pistol from a locker room at the end of his class — an unseemly sight in a pastel-colored room adorned with posters of smiling female students.
“When they arrive, they hand over their weapons. They don’t use violence or take advantage of their position,” said a staff member who asked not to be named.
– Desire to study –
Amanullah Mubariz was 18 when he joined the Taliban, but he never gave up his desire to study.
“I applied to a university in India but failed my English test,” Mubariz, now 25, said, declining to reveal his current position with the Taliban.
“That’s why I enrolled here,” he said, referring to the Muslim Institute.
Mohammad Sabir, on the other hand, is happy to admit that he works for Taliban intelligence, although he is also a student at the private Dawat University.
“I resumed my studies this year after the Islamic Emirates’ victory,” he says, his long hair and eyes, which are lined with traditional kohl eyeliner, peeking out from under a white turban.
Like Jalali, he interrupted his education to join the Taliban, planting bombs and conducting ambushes with his brother in Wardak province.
All of the Taliban students spoken to by AFP said they wanted to use their education to help develop the country. So how do you feel about girls being deprived of this opportunity?
“I personally think that as a young man, a student and a member of the emirate, you have the right to education,” Mubariz said.
“You can serve our country as we do.”
“This country needs them as much as it needs us,” added Jalali.
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