(CNSNews.com) – The Taliban’s decision to ban female students from attending universities has “seriously, possibly even fatally, undermined” its desire to improve relations with the U.S. and the rest of the world, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Tuesday.
Asked what makes the administration think the Taliban wants better relations with the West, Price said the group’s representatives had made clear during engagements “that they seek an improvement in relations with the United States.”
He said there would be a price for the latest action, noting that some senior Taliban members are already targeted for “certain measures,” and “we will look to see what more we can do to hold the Taliban to account for today’s announcement.”
The Taliban’s “Higher Education Ministry” has informed private and public universities to impose the ban on female students with immediate effect and report back to the ministry.
Girls have been banned from school beyond grade six since the fundamentalist Islamic militia seized power in August last year. In line with its interpretation of shari’a, it also enforces strict dress codes, bars women from most employment, and restricts their free movement – including a recent ban on visits to parks and gyms.
Up until now, women had been able to attend university, however, although with restrictions including gender-segregated classrooms, and prohibition on women pursuing some fields of study.
“No country can thrive when half of its population is arbitrarily held back,” Price told a press briefing. “Education is an internationally recognized human right and it is essential to Afghanistan’s economic growth and its stability.”
Price said the Taliban was aware of the implications of its latest decision.
“They know full well that the United States and our partners can’t have a normal relationship with the Taliban when it makes moves like this,” he said.
“With this step that they have taken, they have seriously, possibly even fatally, undermined one of their deepest ambitions in other areas where they seek progress, and that is an improvement, a betterment of relations with the United States and the rest of the world.”
“What makes you think, after all this time, that they want better relations with the West?” a reporter asked.
Price said that in engagements with the Taliban, representatives of the group have “made it clear to us in private – including in private – that they seek an improvement in relations with the United States.”
He added that the Taliban “of course” also seeks the “very real implications that would come with that,” and noted Afghanistan’s heavy reliance on international aid over the past two decades.
U.S. humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan deliberately circumvents the Taliban, according to the State Department.
Price emphasized that point at a briefing earlier this week.
“We are providing hundreds of millions of dollars directly to the Afghan people, very intentionally bypassing the Taliban to see to it that the humanitarian funding, the funding that’s provided by the American people, doesn’t pass through their coffers, doesn’t – isn’t diverted to their wallets and bank accounts, but instead gets to the Afghan people where they need it most,” he said.
News of the university decision came as the U.N. Security Council was holding a briefing in New York on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan.
U.S. Deputy Ambassador Robert Wood told the meeting the U.S. strongly condemned the Taliban’s “absolutely indefensible position.’
“The Taliban cannot expect to be a legitimate member of the international community until they respect the rights of all Afghans, especially the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and girls,” he said.
Afghanistan charge d’affaires Naseer Ahmad Faiq – representing not the Taliban but the erstwhile Ashraf Ghani government – said the oppression of women did not arise from Afghan culture or from Islam, but was “a component of the Taliban’s extremist ideology, and must not be allowed to continue.”
“Embracing the political, social, civil rights of all Afghans, including participation of women and girls in all facets of society should be a non-negotiable prerequisite for any engagement,” he said.
Over the 16 months since Kabul fell to the Taliban, international “leverage” has not been notably successful in affecting the behavior of its administration, more than a dozen of whose cabinet ministers are U.N.-sanctioned terrorists, subject to a travel ban and assets freeze.
A handful of senior Taliban figures are exempted from the travel ban, in a concession agreed upon in 2019 to facilitate ill-fated peace talks. Last June, the Security Council removed two of them in response to the Taliban’s anti-girl’s education policy.
They were the higher education minister – the man who has now banned women from universities – and the deputy education minister.
When the travel ban exemptions for the other 13 Taliban officials came up for renewal again in August, the Security Council was divided, with Russia and China pushing for more liberal arrangements and the U.S. and its allies for more restrictive ones.
Women’s rights advocates urged the council to end the exemptions altogether.
Due to the deadlock the exemptions have not been extended for the past three months. The Taliban continues to call for the council to throw out the travel ban entirely, saying a policy of “isolation” will not benefit Afghanistan.
Reacting to Tuesday’s announcement, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), called for a firmer response.
“The Biden administration and international community must hold the Taliban accountable for their appalling actions, including through sanctions and diplomatic isolation,” he said.
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