Kabul University’s New Chancellor Promises an Updated Taliban Outlook

But with a campus yet to open and women still forbidden to study, Mohammad Ashraf Ghairat has yet to prove his word

Kabul University’s New Chancellor Promises an Updated Taliban Outlook
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

A large group of visitors was waiting for Mohammad Ashraf Ghairat as he arrived at his office clutching a thick gray notepad and pen. It had been a difficult few weeks for the new chancellor of Kabul University and his job would not get easier anytime soon. Under intense scrutiny over the Taliban’s refusal to let young women resume their higher education and misquoted in the international media thanks to a fake Twitter account set up in his name, he was learning that life in government was very different from life as an insurgent. His ability to adjust will affect the futures of thousands of Afghans.

Ghairat epitomizes the current generation of Taliban that came of age during the U.S.-led occupation and are now the vanguard of a political project that is likely to have profound implications not only for Afghanistan and the region, but for Islamist movements everywhere. Winners in a war that dragged on for 20 years before ending suddenly in a matter of weeks, these men are tasked with building a sustainable peace and showing the world that they can govern. Throughout the decades of fighting they continued to believe that victory over the U.S. and its Afghan allies would come, but they were still not prepared when it did. Now, two months on from the fall of Kabul, we are starting to learn who these Taliban really are. It is a complex, contradictory picture.

Routinely portrayed as archaic and extreme by critics and opponents, the new generation of Taliban are in fact a product of their times: more open to the prospect of gradual social change than their forebears yet politically more militant; English-speaking but mistrustful of the West; well-read yet wary of free expression; keen to help their country move forward but defined by its past. Many of them played important roles in a war that killed tens of thousands of Afghans but, as they point out, they too lost friends and family along the way.

Ghairat was born in the Jaghatu district of Wardak, to Kabul’s southwest, when Soviet forces were still in Afghanistan. The second son in a family of three brothers and five sisters, he attended primary school and high school in his home province. Upon graduating in 2004, he wanted to study law and political science but ended up studying for a journalism degree at Kabul University — the very place he now runs as chancellor. It was a time when many Afghans welcomed the presence of U.S. and NATO troops. Ghairat, however, had other ideas.

Afghanistan’s first presidential election of the post-9/11 era had just taken place, and a parliamentary election soon followed. Although a Taliban comeback seemed unlikely to most observers, the insurgency was beginning to catch fire in pockets of the south and east. After years of relative peace, the number of suicide bombings began to increase sharply. Ghairat initially rented a room in a hostel in Kabul’s Kotai-Sangi neighborhood, then moved into the main dormitory on the university’s campus. It did not take long for him to heed the Taliban’s call.

“I was not thinking of political and cultural forms of jihad, only armed jihad,” he told me. “I was focusing on obeying and defending Islam.”

By his own admission, Ghairat was headstrong and careless as a young insurgent and was lucky to avoid arrest. Although he joined the Taliban, much of his inspiration during his time studying journalism came from another militant Islamist group, Hezb-e Islami.

Hezb-e Islami emerged in the late 1960s as an anti-communist student movement known as the Muslim Youth, before going on to become the largest of the mujahedeen parties in the war against the Soviets. After the U.S.-led invasion, some of its members made peace with Hamid Karzai’s government while others joined the insurgency. The holdouts included the party’s leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former engineering student at Kabul University.

Ghairat saw parallels between new young Taliban recruits like himself and the Muslim Youth, and he continued to fight as a part-time guerrilla after finishing his degree. Then, in 2014, one of his brothers, a Taliban commander named Rahimullah Saeed, was killed in a drone strike in Jaghatu. Ghairat began to spend less time in active combat and turned his attention to helping the Taliban in other ways. In 2016, he was appointed to the insurgents’ shadow commission for higher education.

In this role he first worked in Ghazni province, recruiting and indoctrinating local students. Later, he was given responsibility for a far larger zone of operations that ran from Kabul down through southwest Afghanistan. He told me that at one point he was almost shot by members of the Afghan intelligence service while filming a video for the Taliban in Farah. “We were saved by God,” he recalled.

The fact that Ghairat is now in charge of Kabul University, his alma mater, says much about the seismic nature of the revolution that has convulsed the country in recent weeks. Classes have still not started for male or female students, and it’s not clear when they will resume or in what form. As the visitors filed into his office earlier this month, Ghairat greeted them with a smile and sat beside them on a couch, rather than at the head of the room.

A slim man with a fist-length beard, he was dressed in a shalwar kameez, waistcoat and white skull cap. His guests were male university teachers from the geology department who had come to complain about corruption and nepotism in the education system under the previous government of Ashraf Ghani. They wanted to know if life would be any different under the Taliban.

Writing with his left hand, Ghairat took notes as they spoke, then assured them that the situation would improve. Referring to his time as a student at the university, he told them they shouldn’t feel bitter about the past.

“We were all citizens here, all of us, and no one should regret that. We weren’t part of the corruption but we were part of the education system,” he said. “Please don’t talk about victors and vanquished, winners and losers. It is meaningless now. We are all brothers and we need to work as brothers to move forward.”

To illustrate his point he quoted a Hadith. When the meeting was over, he walked his guests to the exit gate before returning to hear the grievances of another set of visitors.

In two interviews with me, Ghairat was coy about his precise role in the latter months of the insurgency but said he was tasked with helping the Taliban prepare to take control of higher education institutions across Afghanistan. As more and more districts fell, he traveled the country. At one point he was in Zabul, at another in Sar-e-Pul. When the Taliban seized control of Sheberghan, the capital of Jawzjan province, he itemized every piece of equipment at the local university. On August 15, the day Kabul fell, he was in the central province of Ghor.

The growth of Afghanistan’s national education system over the past 20 years was one of the signature achievements of the U.S. occupation, and Kabul University served as a focal point for much of that success. Looted and turned into a bullet-scarred military base by militia fighters during the 1992-96 civil war, it was closed to women and only partially open to men during the first Taliban regime.

The university reopened in 2002 to more than 20,000 male and female students. Throughout the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, it was a hive of intellectual and social activity, with men and women mixing freely, and foreign dignitaries visiting the campus. Now it is eerily quiet. Pictures of Ghani and the Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud have been defaced or removed. The few people still hanging around are either teachers with little to do, administrative workers, Taliban guards or worried students trying to find out when they might be allowed back. When I was there two female students dressed in abayas turned up to talk to Ghairat. He greeted them warmly and took them into his office to speak in private.

Ghairat knows that he is widely regarded as part of the problem. Dozens of the university’s teaching staff resigned after his appointment was announced, and even within the Taliban there have been complaints that he is unqualified for the job. To compound his difficulties, last month The New York Times ran a high-profile story based on quotes against women’s education that it claimed had come from Ghairat’s personal Twitter account. When the Twitter account was revealed to be a prank and the quotes a fabrication, the newspaper published a correction.

In person, Ghairat was engaging, inquisitive and polite, but his frustration with the article was clear. He refused to believe it was an honest mistake by the newspaper, regarding it instead as a deliberate act of propaganda.

“I used to respect some American academics and writers and believed they still stood for work that is of a professional standard, but this story took away that belief. I think they are the same as their army,” he said.

Ghairat is the father of two children, including a 4-year-old girl named Afia, and he told me the Taliban would soon ensure that girls and women could study and work at schools and universities again. He did not, however, indicate when this might happen or give a reason for the delay, beyond claiming it was concern over their security that was delaying their attendance. His daughter, he said, would grow up free to learn anything she wanted.

Ghairat can speak Pashto, Dari and Arabic. He can also read English well and speak it at a basic level. If his social views are relatively liberal compared with older Taliban members, the ideologues he cites as key influences suggest a political outlook more in tune with global Islamist movements. He told me he admires the books of the Hezb-e Islami leader Hekmatyar, the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, and another Egyptian, Sayyid Qutb, whose writing from the 1950s and 1960s has inspired generations of Islamist extremists. He also mentioned his respect for Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a Saudi national who has risen to prominence as an al-Qaeda-linked scholar fighting in Syria.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled the country since the Taliban’s victory in the summer. Many of them benefited from the same post-2001 educational opportunities as Ghairat. Some feared for their lives under the new regime. Others simply saw no future for themselves in a country governed by the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law.

Ghairat blamed the exodus on “20 years of a false dream” fueled by corruption. “They are not the friends of Afghanistan, so if they are not here it is not a big deal,” he said. “We need people here who can show mercy and sympathy and share in our pain — people who can help us without the need for dollars and luxury.”

The following day he was back at work again, his office the busiest place on campus and female students still forbidden from returning to class.

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