The United Nations has reached an agreement with the Taliban leadership to set up thousands of schools inside insurgent-controlled territory.
A nationwide scheme with the UN's children's body, Unicef, will see as many as 4,000 informal schools operate in Taliban territory in Afghanistan, after months of negotiations with militant envoys in Doha.
The agreement covers education for both boys and girls, but will begin with classes for just the first three grades of primary school, both sides told the Telegraph.
Unicef said it hoped the agreement would reach more than 120,000 young children in a country where an estimated 3.7 million are out-of-school, three-fifths of them girls.
Charities and aid groups have long cut local deals to gain access to specific Taliban-controlled areas, but the Unicef agreement is thought to be the first nationwide education arrangement with the insurgents' political office in the Qatari capital.
Under it, community-based schools, often run in people's homes, will be paid for by the Global Partnership for Education, which is backed by the UK and US.
The agreement comes amid tortuous attempts to kick off a peace process between Ashraf Ghani's government and the Taliban, and as America troops are quickly withdrawing from the country. The Taliban have so far refused a ceasefire as part of talks and relentless violence has killed scores each week.
The Taliban movement, which was notorious during its 1990s regime for banning girls' education, either controls or contests swathes of the country. As Taliban sway has grown, the militants have tried to piggy-back on government and aid agency services to win over residents.
“By bringing schools to their areas and attracting education funding, they are attempting to show Afghans they can provide something,” said Ashley Jackson, co director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups.
“The fact that they’ve struck a deal with the UN also shows that they’re able to work with the international community on their priorities, like education.”
Unicef hailed the agreement as a breakthrough in getting education to children.
“I think what really has worked is that both sides right from the beginning had a willingness for this,” said Sheema Sen Gupta, Unicef's director in Afghanistan. “We really want to include those kids, we really want to have kids in schools and [the Taliban] really want to have their kids educated. It was just the how and the what that we had to negotiate on and agree on.”
Ms Sen Gupta said the agreement on schools had stemmed from negotiations to get access for polio vaccinators. The Taliban banned door-to-door polio campaigns in 2018 after accusing health workers of acting as spies for air strikes.
She said: “When we would negotiate for access to do polio campaigns, their response was why just polio? Why not other services? Why do you just give our community two drops of polio vaccine and that's it.”
She said negotiations on schools began in February.
“It was quite a surprise for us in Doha in February when they actually asked for education in their area, asked for us to set up schools, classrooms in their areas,” she said.
“That was really a big breakthrough for us and we were very excited by that.”
A senior Taliban education official confirmed the agreement. “Indeed we reached an agreement. Now we are waiting to start classes soon, but Covid-19 might cause further delay.”
The Taliban had said in Doha that they were willing to accept girls' education until the end of primary school, said Erinna Dia, Unicef's head of education in Afghanistan. The agreement begins with the first three years of school, but may expand later. “We are going to make sure that those girls in these areas have access to education,” she said.
Another Taliban official said: “We say let’s start with small girls up to age eight in the early stages of the schools in Taliban areas and the rest will be sorted out gradually.“
Other sticking points had included how to pay teachers. The Taliban had wanted to distribute the funds themselves, but Unicef said teachers would be paid into bank accounts.
The schools will be set up and run by aid charities. The agreement takes in 680 informal schools already being run by aid agencies in Taliban heartlands including Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Faryab. It will then scale up to 4,000. In Taliban areas, the insurgents will get to recruit staff, but they must pass a test set by the ministry of education.
Aid workers already working with the Taliban last night raised concerns that a nationwide agreement may not be as secure as their existing local arrangements.
One said: “In the past we have found it to be quite delicate and its based on our relationship with them. It's our organisation and if we build up a rapport that they know they can trust us, that to us is a much more kind of secure and transparent agreement.”