KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers say they hope to be able to open all schools for girls across the country after late March, their spokesman told The Associated Press on Saturday, offering the first timeline for addressing a key demand of the international community.
Since the Taliban takeover in mid-August, girls in most of Afghanistan have not been allowed back to school beyond grade 7. The international community, reluctant to formally recognize a Taliban-run administration, is wary they could impose similar harsh measures as during their previous rule 20 years ago. At the time, women were banned from education, work and public life.
Zabihullah Mujahid, who is also the Taliban's deputy minister of culture and information, said their education departments are looking to open classrooms for all girls and women following the Afghan New Year, which starts on March 21. Afghanistan, like neighboring Iran, observers the Islamic solar Hijri Shamsi calendar.
Education for girls and women "is a question of capacity," Mujahid said in the interview.
Girls and boys must be completely segregated in schools, he said, adding that the biggest obstacle so far has been finding or building enough dorms, or hostels, where girls could stay while going to school. In heavily populated areas, it is not enough to have separate classrooms for boys and girls -- separate school buildings are needed, he said.
"We are not against education," Mujahid stressed, speaking at a Kabul office building with marble floors that once housed Afghan attorney general's offices and which the Taliban have adopted for their culture and information ministry.
The Taliban dictates so far have been erratic, varying from province to province. Girls have not been allowed back to classrooms in state-run schools beyond grade 7, except in about 10 of the country's 34 provinces. In the capital, Kabul, private universities and high schools have continued to operate uninterrupted. Most are small and the classes have always been segregated.
"We are trying to solve these problems by the coming year," so that schools and universities can open, Mujahid said.
The international community has been skeptical of Taliban announcements, saying it will judge them by their actions -- even as it scrambles to provide billions of dollars to avert a humanitarian catastrophe that the U.N. chief this week warned could endanger the lives of millions.
With a breakdown of services and only sporadic electricity in the bitterly cold Afghan winters, most people rely on firewood and coal for heat. Among the hardest hit are some 3 million Afghans who live as refugees within their own country, having fled their homes because of war, drought, poverty or fear of the Taliban.
Earlier this month, the United Nations launched a $5 billion appeal for Afghanistan, the single largest appeal for one country.
Washington has spent $145 billion on reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime. Yet even before the Taliban recaptured the country, the poverty rate was 54% --and a 2018 Gallup poll revealed unprecedented misery among Afghans.
Mujahid appealed for economic cooperation, trade and "stronger diplomatic relations." So far, neither Afghanistan's neighbors nor the United Nations seem ready to grant formal recognition which would help open up the Afghan economy. However U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called for greater economic development, saying it's critical to rapidly inject liquidity into the Afghan economy "and avoid a meltdown that would lead to poverty, hunger and destitution for millions."
The international community has called for a more representative government that includes women as well as ethnic and religious minorities. While all members of the new Taliban Cabinet are men and most are Taliban members, Mujahid said there are exceptions such as the deputy finance minister and officials in the economics ministry who are holdovers from the previous, U.S.-backed administration.
Mujahid also said 80% of civil servants who have returned to work were employees under the previous administration. Women are working in the health and education sector and at Kabul International Airport in customs and passport control, he added. He did not say if or when women would be allowed to return to work in government ministries.
He also told the AP that most of the new government's revenue will come from customs that the Taliban will collect at border crossings with Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian nations to the north. Without offering figures, he claimed the Taliban have brought in more revenue in their first four months in power than the previous government in over a year.
He appealed on Afghans who have fled to return to their homeland. Since the takeover, there have been cases of opponents arrested, journalists beaten, rights workers threatened and demonstrations by women dispersed by heavily armed Taliban troops firing in the air.
Mujahid acknowledged incidents of Taliban members harassing Afghan civilians, including humiliating young men and forcibly cutting their hair.
"Such crimes happen, but it is not the policy of our government," he said, adding that those responsible were arrested.
"This is our message. We have no dispute with anyone and we don't want anyone to remain in opposition or away from their country."