US cancels talks with Taliban over girls school closure

The move comes after the Taliban backtracked on its previous commitment to open secondary schools to girls.

Schoolchildren in Afghanistan
In a surprise decision on March 23, the Taliban decided against opening educational institutions to girls in secondary schools [File: Rahmat Gul/AP]

The United States has cancelled planned talks with the Taliban in Qatar that were set to address key economic issues after the group that is now ruling Afghanistan reversed a decision to allow girls to return to secondary school.

The cancellation was the first concrete sign that recent Taliban moves on human rights and inclusivity could directly affect the international community’s willingness to help the group, some of whose leaders are under US sanctions.

“On Tuesday, we joined millions of Afghan families in expressing our deep disappointment with the Taliban’s decision to not allow women and girls to return to secondary school,” a State Department spokesperson said on Friday.

“We have cancelled some of our engagements, including planned meetings in Doha [Qatar’s capital] around the Doha Forum, and made clear that we see this decision as a potential turning point in our engagement.”

Schoolgirls in Afghanistan
The US and its allies have insisted that the Taliban, which banned girls from school and most women from work the last time they ruled, improve their human rights record [File: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters]

The move comes after the Taliban on Wednesday backtracked on their previous commitment to open secondary schools to girls, saying that they would remain closed until a plan was drawn up for them to reopen.

The reversal shocked many, leaving students in tears and sparking small protests by girls in the capital Kabul.

It also drew condemnation from humanitarian agencies and foreign governments.

“This decision by the Taliban, if it is not swiftly reversed, will profoundly harm the Afghan people, the country’s prospects for economic growth, and the Taliban’s ambition to improve their relations with the international community,” the spokesperson said.

In a joint statement on Thursday, the foreign ministers of the UK, Canada, France, Italy, Norway and the US, as well as the high representative of the European Union, said the Taliban’s decision will harm the group’s prospects for legitimacy.

The Taliban’s decision to keep schools shuttered for girls came after a meeting late on Tuesday by senior officials in the southern city of Kandahar, the movement’s de facto power center and conservative spiritual heartland.

It followed months of work by the international community to address the issue of supporting teacher stipends, and came just as Afghan girls were eagerly heading back to school for the first time in seven months.

Meanwhile, the planned talks between the US and Taliban were designed to cover issues including the independence of the Afghan central bank and the printing of Afghani currency notes.

Also up for discussion were a humanitarian exchange facility to free up cash and hundreds of millions of dollars of funding currently held in a World Bank trust fund that is earmarked for Afghanistan’s education sector, according to the three sources.

The Taliban have been unable to access billions of dollars in foreign reserves held overseas as governments including the United States refuse to fully recognise them.

Source: News Agencies