Taliban reversal on appointment of Kabul University head

The Taliban have backtracked on their controversial decision last month to appoint their own candidate as chancellor of Kabul University, which caused widespread criticism and opposition from the university’s own academics.

They have announced that a senior academic figure who is also acceptable to the Taliban will be the new chancellor.

Sources at Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Education told University World News that Osama Aziz has instead been nominated by the Taliban and was introduced to the faculty deans on Wednesday at the campus of the prestigious public institution in the heart of the capital city.

The little-known new chancellor is said to be a resident of Nangarhar province and holds a bachelor degree in Sharia and law from the International Islamic University, Islamabad in Pakistan. He also holds a masters degree in Islamic business law and a doctorate in jurisprudence from the same university, said the sources.

In addition to the International Islamic University in Islamabad, Osama has also taught law at Al-Fajr Institute in Pakistan for several years.

Prior to this, in a clearly political move, the Taliban on 21 September replaced Mohammad Osman Babury, a renowned and seasoned PhD scholar, with a young religious school graduate, Mohammad Ashraf Ghairat, as chancellor of the university, sparking outrage among the academic community. Babury had earned his doctorate from Germany and had rich academic experience in Russia and India.

Established in the 1930s, Kabul University, with over 20,000 registered students, is the country’s biggest state-run academic institution, located in the heart of country’s capital.

Ruh Ullah, a Kabul University (KU) lecturer, told University World News that “Ashraf Ghairat was opposed by all at Kabul University because he met not a single requirement for such an important post”.

“According to the law of the Ministry of Higher Education, the chancellor of any higher education institution shall be selected from among the professors of the relevant establishment with a senior rank,” he said.

According to Ullah, Osama Aziz does meet the legal requirements and is an academic figure.

“The Taliban are also trying to send across an image abroad to Afghans and the international community that they seek to improve the situation,” Ullah said, agreeing that the negative reaction of KU academics and the possible loss of many of them may be behind the new appointment, made within just a few weeks of Ghairat’s appointment.

A number of KU lecturers and professors said dozens of them tendered their resignations against this ‘illegal’ act of the Taliban regime, which they deemed detrimental for the country’s future generations.

“There is no space for argument, debate and critical arguments with the Taliban. It is like speaking to the barrel of a gun,” said another lecturer at the arts faculty.

Some KU academics seeking to stay abroad also reportedly cited Ghairat’s appointment as a reason not to return to the country and serve under him.

Academics said the Taliban had clearly then sought a person with academic credentials who was also acceptable to them.

Aziz Amin, a former special secretary to former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, said the new chancellor falls within a new class of Afghans educated in religious centres and universities in Pakistan with a conservative mindset.

For the time being, the International Islamic University, Islamabad (IIUI) “has become the main source of Taliban educated cadre”, with other IIUI graduates now working for the Afghan higher education ministry and ministry of foreign affairs, Amin said via Twitter.

Will studies resume?

A number of Kabul University students expressed hope that with this new chancellor their long-stalled studies might resume.

Muhammad Iqbal from Ghazni province, who is studying economics, told University World News that he waited for two years after completing high school in a bid to prepare well for the national university entrance test known as the ‘Kankor’ and managed to get enough marks to make it to the country’s top public university.

“Little did we know that everything would crumble and we would be left abandoned with no clear view of the future of our studies,” he said.

More than two months since capturing power in the Afghan capital Kabul, cementing their hold over the country, the Taliban is struggling to re-open public sector universities under a hardline gender segregation policy. The thorny path chosen by the Islamists is proving difficult to implement for large public universities, experts said.

Driven by mounting student demand for education, some private universities resumed classes on 6 September 2021, accepting Taliban demands such as raising barriers inside classrooms to segregate male and female students. Many students stayed away.

Public institutions have not yet been able to resume.