In a recent effort to prevent their attendance at school, the Taliban poisoned nearly 150 Afghan schoolgirls, marking just the latest atrocity in a litany of barbaric acts the Islamist terror group continues to inflict upon the women and girls of Afghanistan.
The afflicted girls -- all of whom suffered severe nausea, headaches, and dizziness -- had become poisoned after drinking contaminated water from jugs in their classrooms at their high school in Afghanistan's northern province of Takhar. Many of the students were taken to a local hospital where some were listed in critical condition.
Fearing retribution, some school officials were initially reluctant to assign blame to any particular group for the chemical attack, with one simply saying, "This is either the work of those who are against girls' education or irresponsible armed individuals."
However, Afghan police investigators were somewhat more conclusive stating that they "strongly suspected" a water supply truck at the girls' school had been poisoned by Taliban insurgents as "an intentional act to poison schoolgirls."
Of course, it doesn't take too much investigative legwork to confirm Taliban culpability in crafting such a heinous plot given the terror group's historical fondness for using poison on Afghan schoolgirls.
Specifically, Afghan Education Ministry officials have stated that the Taliban was behind at least 17 poison-gas attacks on girls' schools in Afghanistan in 2010, six of which took place in the Afghan capital of Kabul.
Those 2010 attacks included poison spray being used on four girls' schools in Kanduz, attacks which hospitalized over fifty teenage girls; a gas poisoning of a girls' high school in Kabul which required the hospitalization of 46 students and nine teachers; and a poison spray attack on a girls' school in the northern province of Sar-e-Pul that hospitalized 20 students.
Now, the latest chemical poisoning in Takhar comes only weeks after Afghan President Hamid Karzai at a ceremony marking the start of Afghanistan's school year had urged insurgent Islamist groups not to attack teachers and school children, saying that the country could only develop through the "spread of education."
For Afghan girls, those educational opportunities have been growing significantly since the ouster of the Taliban from power in 2001 under whose rule women and girls were banned from going to school on the grounds that it was un-Islamic.
Instead, the Taliban subjected Afghan women to a terrifying Sharia nightmare that, among other things, forbade them from working outside the home or even leaving their homes unless accompanied by a close male relative. Failure to abide by these restrictions resulted in public whippings, beatings or stoning.
However, once freed from the Taliban yoke, the enactment of a national Afghan campaign to expand educational opportunities for women has driven school enrollment from several thousand girls in 2002 to more than 2.7 million girls in 2011.
As Farooq Wardak, Afghanistan's Education Minister, has noted, "During the Taliban era the percentage of girls of the one million students that we had was 0 percent. The percentage of female teachers was 0 percent. Today 38 percent of our students and 30 percent of our teachers are female."
Not surprisingly, those educational successes have also coincided with a decade of some remarkable progress made by Afghan women in other spheres, including the rise of women's advocacy groups; election to government office; and training as military pilots and Olympic athletes.
Unfortunately, their incremental educational gains are being violently jeopardized by an unrelenting Taliban campaign of terror, a campaign which has subjected Afghan females to acid attacks and shootings; the destruction of their schools through arson, rocket and mortar attacks; and the killing of their teachers.
Examples of that campaign of violence includes ten Taliban fighters arrested for squirting acid onto 15 girls who were walking to school in the province of Kandahar, an assault which caused severe burns and disfigurement to many of the girls; Taliban gunmen beheading the headmaster of a girls' school in Kabul: and insurgents destroying over 240 girls' schools throughout the country.
Of course, it should be noted that while the Taliban are the most overtly lethal opponents of educational opportunities for Afghan women, they have been abetted in their efforts by the nodding assistance of Muslim men in the region who more often than not treat women little better than livestock.
As Farooq Wardak has acknowledged, historical opposition to schooling for girls extends beyond the Taliban to the "deepest pockets" of Afghan society, a patriarchal society that remains heavily stacked against Afghan women and girls.
For example, Afghan females are subjected to the widespread and socially accepted practice of forced child marriage; honor killings; and the traditional Afghan practice known as "baad," whereupon women are given away to pay family debts or settle disputes.
Not unexpectedly, the result of these and other abuses has made Afghanistan one of the world's most dangerous and unforgiving places for women, where the life expectancy of an Afghan woman is just 44 years, where 31 percent suffer from physical violence and another 30 percent suffer from psychological trauma.
Now, a sustained terror campaign by the Taliban against their burgeoning educational aspirations threatens to add to those nightmarish woes.
More disturbingly, it also comes as US, Afghan government officials and the Taliban have been engaged for several months in an effort to initiate peace talks that could lead to the Islamists playing a role in the Afghan government once the American-led Coalition forces completely withdraw from the country by the end of 2014.
While the Taliban suspended the peace talks in March and instead have reignited a spring offensive -- highlighted by well-orchestrated attacks on Kabul and three provincial capitals in eastern Afghanistan -- the haunting specter of its potential return to power is cause for fear among Afghan women.
As Manizha Naderi, who heads the civil rights group Women for Afghan Women recently said, "If there are negotiations with the Taliban, women's rights will be the first to go, and women will be forced to stay at home all over again," adding, "Dark days are in Afghanistan's future."
Unfortunately for Afghan schoolgirls, those dark days are already here.