The Swede Who Convinced Taliban To Allow Girls Schools
Anders Fange first went to Afghanistan as a young radio journalist in the early 1980s after Afghans began fighting against the Soviet occupation.
He later moved to humanitarian relief work and helped keep 40,000 girls in education during the worst excesses of the Taliban years.
These days Anders Fange, 65, lectures on Afghanistan in his native Sweden. His main challenge is to convince skeptical audiences to shed preconceptions when they think about Afghanistan. He hones this point by drawing on nearly three decades of experience in that mountainous country.
Fange's public speaking engagements and private conversations are deeply engaging owing to his detailed knowledge of Afghanistan. Anecdotes from his long years there are more than a match for the dry academic comparisons that frequently dominate such events in the West.
Fange first went to Afghanistan as a young radio journalist in the early 1980s after Afghans began fighting against the Soviet occupation. He later moved to humanitarian relief work and even worked for the United Nations political mission in the country.
Afghanistan always continues to surprise you.
"Afghanistan always continues to surprise you. You always get new explanations for things," Fange says. "It's a complicated country in many ways -- that makes it difficult and it makes it exciting."
In 1984, Fange spent three months walking with the mujahedin through valleys, passes, and forests. They often stayed in village mosques. He witnessed their attacks against Soviet convoys and government garrisons.
"From those years, I took with me the thing that I have been saying since then: that the future of Afghanistan is not decided in Kabul," he says. "It is decided out in the valleys. It is decided in the rural areas."
He was fascinated by the Afghan culture -- in particular, the practice of hospitality. "It's most impolite to leave a guest alone. From my upbringing in Sweden, I was used to [having] my own room. But there, you could never be alone," he says of the days he spent in remote Afghan villages.
In the early 1990s, Fange joined the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) and began living in Peshawar in western Pakistan.
In his role as an aid worker, he experienced Afghan suffering first-hand. But he was impressed by Afghan resilience.
"Their capacity for work, their capacity for being able to carrying through in very difficult circumstances -- I doubt that there is any other people on earth who had this kind of capacity," he says.
The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan became one of the largest aid groups at the height of Afghan civil war, when the Taliban militia swept through much of the country. Fange dealt with many Taliban officials.
"Most of the Taliban, even the ministers we dealt with in Kabul, had a pretty pragmatic view," he says. "Somehow it was understood that they needed this humanitarian assistance of which we were one of the providers."
One of the most sensitive issues he negotiated with the Taliban was rural schools where some 40,000 Afghan girls were educated. After long talks with Amir Khan Muttaqi, the regime's minister of education, the Taliban agreed to sign a protocol allowing the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan to work in the country.
"When we finalized these negotiations, he told me, 'We know you have these girls' schools. We know it, but don't tell us,' he said,'" Fange says as he recalls the conversation. "In other words, it was a very Afghan view that if it's not official, then a lot more is tolerated and allowed than what's in official life."
The schools, however, were not immune to Taliban interference. In the summer of 2001, Fange says, some local mullahs in remote rural districts attempted to close down a school. His answer to such a menace was to threaten the closure of all Swedish Committee for Afghanistan education, health care, and agriculture projects in the area.
'Keep a low profile'
"Without exception, they came back the day after or even the same day and said, 'OK, you can stick to the girls schools, but keep a low profile,'" he recalls of the often tricky negotiations with rural clerics. "During Taliban [rule] we never were actually forced really to close girls schools."
After 9/11, Fange became a leading member or the UN political mission in Afghanistan. But he was soon disappointed at what he regarded as political blunders made by Afghan leaders and the international community in rebuilding the country, including disenfranchising certain segments of the population while reenergizing and empowering some of the most notorious warlords.
"The West is obsessed with its own political system as a perfect political system," he says, adding that Western states have struggled for centuries to improve their democracies.
"Then we throw it on Afghanistan and say, 'You have 10 years to fix this,'" he says. "Of course it doesn't work."