skip to content

School of Arts and Humanities

Opinion: Confronting the Taliban - an educational encounter

Dr David Gosling of the Faculty of Divinity discusses his time on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, his encounters with the Taliban and why education is the best weapon against terrorism.

By Dr David Gosling, Faculty of Divinity and Clare Hall.

In a country that has five million children out of school (three million of them girls) it may seem incongruous to prioritise higher education. But prestigious higher education institutions, such as Edwardes College in Peshawar – where I was principal from 2006-2010 – are capable of producing the calibre of leaders able to address the full range of educational issues.

Edwardes College, affiliated to the University of Peshawar, is one of a number of higher education institutions in south Asia founded a hundred or more years ago by British administrators and missionaries. Although conceived by the utilitarian administrators of the Raj as the creator of interpreters between themselves and “those whom we govern” – to quote the imperious Lord Macaulay – it initially taught in the local vernaculars and have maintained well above average academic standards. The College's progressive ethos and international contacts have enabled them to take on board the education of women and disadvantaged minorities more readily than comparable educational institutions, and they have consistently trained some of the most outstanding leaders from the south Asian region.

In the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (formerly the North-West Frontier Province) Edwardes College was the first men’s college to admit women, the first of whom was admitted to the computer science department. By the time I joined in 2006 about 10% of 2000 students were women, and there was a somewhat higher proportion of women lecturers. By the time I left both proportions were significantly higher, and the college boasted a well-equipped women’s centre. When some of the more conservative professors complained about my preoccupation with women’s participation my answer was always in terms of the examination results: at the end of my fourth and final year the 14% of the total student body who were women were carrying off 53% of the top academic prizes.

Students at Edwardes College

There are considerable differences between the social situations of women in different parts of the Pakistan/Afghan region. Benazir Bhutto, from a rich landowning family in Sindh, was not only prime minister of Pakistan twice but, as an undergraduate at Oxford University, was president of the Oxford Union Society. However, in Pashtun society, on both sides of the border, women are unlikely to achieve such distinction; their literacy rate is much lower than that of men, and many are severely discriminated against. They can vote in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, but may be prevented from doing so by their menfolk and public opinion. Child marriage was made illegal in Pakistan in 2000 but continues in some places.

The Taliban’s opposition to women’s education (or sometimes only to co-education) was aggravated during the late 1970s and 1980s when General Zia-ul-Haq became president of Pakistan and imposed a rigid version of Sharia law. In some respects this was surprising because Zia’s early years had been spent as a student in the liberal and cosmopolitan atmosphere of St. Stephen’s College in Delhi. With funds from Saudi Arabia he constructed large numbers of madrasas along the Pak/Afghan border, populating them with imported Wahabi mullahs. Such policies paved the way for Taliban militants from Afghanistan to find refuge in these same tribal border regions from which they could plan campaigns inside both countries.

taliban weapons from Resolute Support Media on Flickr CC2.0

Peshawar bore the brunt of a furious backlash by Taliban militants against “soft” targets during much of my tenure as Edwardes College principal. What happened recently in Paris happened on a monthly basis with much the same number of casualties. The international press only began to pay attention to these in September 2013 when suicide bombers killed over a hundred worshippers at All Saints’ Church (four were my own former students). Then in December 2014 a hundred and forty children were shot to death at the Army Public School in Peshawar. The first incident was stated by the Taliban to be a response to US drone attacks in the tribal areas, the second a reaction to Army atrocities in Waziristan.

One of the most effective counters to terrorism is quality education which offers hope and employment to the disenfranchised youth in places such as these border areas of Pakistan. A few years ago the former Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Haroon Ahmed, collaborated with General Musharraf and Atta ur Rahman, the distinguished Pakistani chemist, to set up several technological and vocational universities in Pakistan with funding and personnel from several countries, which, unfortunately, did not include the UK. This programme collapsed when General Musharraf left office, but it is an example of the kind of initiative which could help to redress the current imbalances of opportunity between rich industrial countries and their poorer counterparts.

On the basis of my educational experiences in Pakistan such collaborative activities will not lead to a lowering of standards – possibly even the contrary – and will equip and encourage potential leaders (and especially women) from unstable areas to rectify the unjust imbalances which fuel much current domestic and international violence.

Frontier of Fear by David Gosling

David L. Gosling's new book, Frontier of Fear: Confronting the Taliban on Pakistan’s Border, is now available, published by London, IB Tauris (The Radcliffe Press), 2016. 

Dr Gosling will launch the book at an event in Magdalene College, with an introduction by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, on Wednesday 9 March at 6:00pm. All welcome.

Read more:

Cambridge University

Cambridge News

Times Higher Education

Image credits: David Gosling at Edwardes College courtesy David Gosling; Students  via  Edwardes College, Peshawar; Taliban ammunition from Resolute Support Media on Flickr (CC2.0); Front page image from Hashoo Foundation USA on Flickr (CC2.0)