Entrenching Extremism: The Taliban’s Radicalization
Agenda in Afghanistan
Ali Kosha 11 January 2024

Afghanistan is the only country in the world where women and girls are completely banned from education and from working in most sectors, including NGOs. While the restrictions on women and girls have rightly received some international attention, an important aspect of the Taliban’s oppressive regime that has not received enough attention is their systematic indoctrination of boys, and more recently young girls in some provinces, through the education system.

The education system established in Afghanistan under the previous internationally recognized government, especially the school and university curricula, included several religious subjects and teachings. The widespread presence of Islamic Studies in both educational settings raised concerns about its potential impact on the ideological development of students. Some studies have suggested that the approach to Islamic education in schools and universities may have contributed to the radicalization of some students, leading them to extremist organizations such as the Taliban and other Islamist extremist groups.

However, the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam has led them to view the previous education system as insufficiently “Islamic,” prompting them to introduce sweeping changes to the school curriculum. In December 2022, a revised Taliban school curriculum scheme was published, which proposed the replacement of secular subjects with religious ones. In particular, the plan suggested the elimination of three subjects: fine arts, civic education, and cultural studies. It considered art to be “useless,” civic education – which included topics such as the country’s 2004 constitution, democracy, and human rights – to be “harmful,” and cultural studies to be “unnecessary.”

Their guidelines also include removing images of living creatures from textbooks, as they believe that photographing animals and humans is against Islamic teachings. They also insist that images could also be harmful to the mind of young students and describe the photos of athletes printed in the textbooks as “semi-nude.” The plan specifically emphasizes the inclusion of jihad and jihadist concepts in the curriculum. It includes details such as “the essence of the concept of jihad is fighting with swords” and how religiously rewarding it is “to breed horses during jihad.”

In addition to the curriculum changes, Taliban leaders have also repeatedly stated their plan to expand the number of madrasas in Afghanistan. Madrasas have historically been, male-only centers, where subjects such as the Quran, its interpretation, Arabic, and Islam are taught. They typically do not require tuition and provide free food and lodging for their students.

In October 2023, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported that the Taliban’s education policies were reducing the overall quality of education by limiting the subjects taught to students, as the Taliban planned to remove certain secular subjects from all levels of education and focus only on Islamic studies in line with their interpretation of Islam. The agency also added: “The Taliban have converted teacher training facilities and primary and secondary schools in several provinces into madrasas, have voiced their intention to convert more primary and secondary schools into madrasas, and have begun actively recruiting teachers for madrasas.” The Taliban have already converted several public schools into such madrasas. One such example is the Abdul Hai Habibi High School in the city of Khost, which once had some 6,000 students.

Unlike the previous Afghan government, which invested primarily in public schools and universities and remained indifferent to madrasas, the Taliban plan to invest significantly in them. In a decree issued in early June 2022, Taliban leader Mullah Hebatullah outlined the creation and funding of jihadist madrasas in Afghanistan. The first article of the decree emphasized that “all jihadist madrasas should follow the Taliban-approved curriculum.” The group aims to establish up to ten madrasas in each of Afghanistan’s 420 districts.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, many Afghan Taliban leaders studied at madrasas such as Darul Uloom Haqqania in Pakistan. There are reportedly more than 30,000 madrasas in Pakistan, and Darul Uloom Haqqania, the largest, is the one whose alumni hold key positions in the Taliban government. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban’s Minister of Interior Affairs, Amir Khan Muttaqi, the group’s Foreign Minister, and Abdul Baqi Haqqani, its former Minister of Higher Education, are just a few who once studied at Haqqania.

While those who hold key positions in the Taliban government may not have received military training at the madrasas they attended, they do have a plan to include military training and jihadist concepts in their curricula. At a recent graduation ceremony for a jihadist madrasa in Afghanistan’s Paktia province, Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani, the Taliban’s acting Minister of Migrants and Returnees Affairs, emphasized that religious madrasas should also “teach jihadist and military concepts.”

The Taliban are focusing their attention on areas of Afghanistan that have been resistant to their ideology. According to Taliban leaders, these regions have been more affected by the “occupation.” By establishing numerous madrasas in these areas, the Taliban aim to reduce the likelihood of resistance to their rule. Kabul, Balkh, and Panjshir are among the provinces where the Taliban have invested the most in the past two years, establishing madrasas for both girls and boys in several districts.

The Taliban’s decision to close girls’ schools and their rapid expansion of madrasas across Afghanistan, such as the establishment of 95 new madrasas in Panjshir province alone, has raised serious concerns about what their plan may be, especially as they also appear to be beginning to restrict people’s chances to pursue education abroad. In August 2023, for example, the Taliban prevented 100 female students from traveling to the United Arab Emirates to pursue university studies. Similarly, the Taliban’s Minister of Higher Education Nadim denied travel permits to a group of 500 male students who had received scholarships to study in Russia, stating, “You go as Muslims and return as communists.”

As a group known for its support of suicide bombings and for financially supporting the families of such attackers, the Taliban appear committed to spreading their ideology throughout the country, not just within their ranks. With the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, the country has become the only one in the world to officially incorporate a suicide bomber unit into its military structure. This disturbing development, which already raises concerns about future instability, is as alarming as the Taliban’s plan to shape a generation of their followers through training them in jihadist madrasas.

While madrasas have traditionally been male-only centers, in recent years girls have begun attending madrasas in certain parts of the country. In Kunduz, for instance, around 6,000 girls were enrolled in full-time studies at the Ashraf-ul Madares madrasa by 2014, a place which has also been accused of radicalizing women.

Recent developments demonstrate the Taliban’s intention to promote madrasas as an alternative to public schools, for girls too. Recently, Taliban officials declared that all Afghan girls, regardless of their age, would be allowed to study in madrasas. On December 20, 2023, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Roza Otunbayeva, stated: “Their [Taliban] direction is really to put more children into education, and so they found that madrasas – this is something native – and schools, is a Western concept. That is what [the Taliban] said.”Though it has not received global attention, the recent rise in the number of jihadist madrasas has sparked concerns among those familiar with the issue in Afghanistan. Religious researcher Mohammad Moheq warns that the expansion of Taliban-style religious madrasas will transform Afghanistan into a breeding ground for religious extremism. He adds: “Anyone with a reasonable understanding of Afghanistan and the world comprehends that the growth of madrasas in Afghanistan is tantamount to digging the country’s grave. Madrasas in the Taliban’s vision will convert Afghanistan into a huge storehouse of religious explosives, ultimately detonating the country.”

Similarly, Shah Gul Rezai, a teacher and former member of the Afghan Parliament, has recently explained that the Taliban’s goal in converting schools into madrasas is twofold: first, to spread religious extremism and a distorted interpretation of religious teachings. Second, by admitting girls to madrasas, which has happened in some districts, the Taliban want to deceive the international community into believing that they support girls’ education and gain international recognition. Rezai warns, “If the Taliban succeed in replacing public schools with madrasas, it will have severe consequences not only for Afghanistan, but also for the region and the world.”

The Taliban’s plan to expand jihadist madrasas in Afghanistan is a cause for concern. First, without a comprehensive secular education that includes technology, science, reading, and writing, students will not be equipped with the skills necessary to contribute to society or earn an income. This could lead to a weaker economy in Afghanistan, where more than half of the population is already food insecure, according to the United Nations World Food Program. Moreover, if left unchecked, it could also lead to a never-ending cycle of violence in Afghanistan and play a destabilizing role in the region. Even if the Taliban’s madrasas do not produce a generation of jihadists, they could still create a society with a distorted worldview that spreads hatred of women and people of other religions.



Cover photo: Afghan children read the holy Koran at a madrassa or an Islamic school in the Fayzabad district of Badakhshan province on December 27, 2023. (Photo by Omer Abrar / AFP.)



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