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US threatens Taliban with ‘costs’ after ban on Afghan women and girls from school

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(NEW YORK) — The Taliban returned to power over Afghanistan issuing public promises to preserve its people’s basic freedoms. But just as swiftly as the group grasped control, it reneged on those guarantees — completely blocking female students’ access to education through a series of crackdowns culminating on Wednesday in a ban forbidding them from attending elementary school, setting the country’s women back decades.

The decision to prohibit Afghan girls from receiving even a basic level of education outside of the home comes just a day after the Taliban announced that women would no longer be allowed to attend public or private universities.

These latest limitations have sparked the condemnation of Western governments and human rights groups across the globe. Even countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE — which are frequently criticized over their unequal treatment of men and women — have urged the Taliban to reverse course.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that widespread criticism was important and that the U.S. was working with various partners to hold Afghanistan’s de facto rulers accountable, although he declined to preview any action.

“What you’ve already heard is a course of condemnation from around the world, and not only from us, but from countries — virtually every continent, including Muslim countries, which I think is in and of itself important and powerful,” Blinken told reporters. “And to be clear, and we are engaged with other countries on this right now. There are going to be costs if this is not reversed.”

But so far, Afghanistan’s leaders seem undeterred by any attempts to either persuade or pressure the government to keep its initial promises, and is reportedly already taking brutal steps to enforce its newly installed policies.

Almost immediately after the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops in August 2021, the Taliban imposed new limitations on female university students and shuttered lower level schools, saying it would reopen them to girls and women last March after the country’s security situation improved and measures could be implemented to fully segregate both sexes. When that deadline arrived, girls above the 6th grade where still not allowed to return.

At the time, the U.S. retaliated by canceling talks with the Taliban focused on economic issues, but those meetings resumed in late June.

On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price called the crackdown “possibly even fatal” to any hopes the Taliban might have for improving their standing with the West. He also maintained that the group — which has not been recognized by any country as the lawful rulers of Afghanistan — is eagerly seeking legitimacy on the international stage and hopes to better relations with the U.S., saying the Taliban have made those desires “clear to us in private.”

“The level of our support and the nature of our relationship is wholly contingent on the actions that they take towards their own people and the actions that they take with regard to our primary interests,” Price said.

However, since its exit from the country, the Biden administration has given Afghanistan over $1.1 billion in humanitarian assistance and moved to unfreeze another $3.5 billion in Afghan central bank reserves. While the State Department says it has placed safeguards to prevent that money from falling into the hands of the Taliban, monitors from the United Nations report that members of the group are increasingly seeking to sway aid money and that accountability is difficult to achieve.

Price also argued the administration has “many tools in its toolbox” to punish the Taliban for its restrictions, but the group itself and many of its prominent members are already under strict sanctions. Imposing other economic punishments to the country runs the risk of worsening an already dire humanitarian crisis ravaging Afghanistan.

If women are not allowed to access education, both the State Department and human rights groups say Afghanistan’s economy is certain to suffer further blows.

“There are no two ways about it: women and girls must be allowed to work, access education and to move freely,” Vice President of International Programmes for the International Rescue Committee Elinor Raikes, said in a statement. “Many educated Afghans have already left the country over the last eighteen months. Afghanistan is in urgent need of a future generation of doctors, teachers, civil servants and much more.”

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