The South Asia Channel

A diamond in the rough

As the United States continues to withdraw troops and materiel from Afghanistan, the rhetoric from President Hamid Karzai's administration wavers between being fairly pro-American and caustically anti-American, and speculation about reconciliatory negotiations with the Taliban and other insurgent groups abound, it is difficult to remain optimistic about the durability of institutions America has helped build in Afghanistan.  However, there is one institution that stands out amongst its peers as a clear success story.

Southwest of Kabul's beautiful Babur Gardens, home of the Mughal Empire founder's tomb, a nondescript maroon door is set back into cream blast walls.  Although they look no different than the other concrete walls surrounding compounds along the main road to the battered Darul Aman palace, what happens inside those walls is changing the minds and lives of individuals from all over the country who have the opportunity to attend.  Just over the hill from the center of Kabul and past the old city wall, the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) may be on the outskirts of the capital city, but it is quickly sinking roots into the town and making connections around the country.

It is changing the way that Afghans view and access higher education.  Mrs. Sultana Hakimi, wife of Afghan ambassador to the United States Eklil Ahmad Hakimi, spoke of the importance of the university's activities when she observed that, "With such a dynamic society [in which] 60 percent is under the age of 20, Afghanistan will rely heavily on the emerging generations."  These young Afghans have no small task ahead of them, even if they seek only to restore their country to a level of stability and security similar to that it last enjoyed in the mid twentieth century. 

Since it opened in 2006 with an initial enrollment of 53 students, AUAF has had great success. 
AUAF graduated its first class in 2011 and currently has just under a thousand undergraduate students, with the student body nearly doubling during seasonal classes that focus on adult education programs.  These adult education programs focus on teaching the GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) ministry staff, which dovetails with other U.S Government efforts to build professional capacity across Afghanistan's administrative bodies. 

The university's campus is housed in a series of buildings that was originally constructed as the American International School of Kabul from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, and the campus has long been the center of learning, including the brief period during which it served
as the Soviet intelligence headquarters during their occupation of Afghanistan through the 1980s.  The five-acre campus is currently near its maximum capacity of one thousand undergraduate students, and houses administrative offices, classrooms, science and information technology (IT) labs, a teleconferencing suite, athletic facilities, and a state-of-the-art library that receives Western publications a mere two weeks after their official release. 

Across the road is another 80 acres-recently acquired by the university-which will accommodate a women's center and another IT center, as well as staff and faculty housing.  The International Center for Afghan Women's Economic Development, the first center of its kind to facilitate both international and Afghan public and private sector efforts to advance the role of women in the economic stabilization of the country, is only the first of many new resources planned for student use on the new campus.  It is slated to open just 13 months after groundbreaking, demonstrating an unheard of rate of construction for a complex of that size pretty much anywhere in the world, let alone in the middle of a conflict zone. 

Said Jawad, former Afghan Ambassador to the United States and President of the Foundation for Afghanistan, remarked of the center that, "True economic prosperity and peace can only come from harnessing the myriad talents and courage of Afghan women... the lessons we have learned in the last decade teach us to avoid duplication of efforts but, rather, be force multipliers." Like many other supporters of the AUAF, the Foundation for Afghanistan stands ready to connect rural and urban women and their respective projects with the work of the university and its new women's center.  The center will open on May 25, 2013, in conjunction with the graduation of AUAF's third undergraduate class and first cohort of business school students. 

The Trials

Needless to say, the security situation in Kabul is a concern for the students, faculty, and staff of AUAF.  In October 2011, a massive suicide car bomb was driven into a military shuttle bus just beyond the gates of the university.  The attack took 13 American lives, as well as those of at least half a dozen bystanders.  That event was the second largest single loss of American lives since the war began, behind only the tragic helicopter crash that killed 30 U.S. troops a few short months earlier. 

As Matt Trevithick-who worked for two and a half years as the university's Media Relations Manager-remarked, "We don't forget where we are, [and we] provide the safest environment we can."  Visitors are screened prior to entry through the main gate, and are vetted and searched thoroughly before proceeding through metal detectors to the campus grounds.  Armed guards keep watch over the campus and quickly blend away into the sense of normalcy that blankets the university's goings-on.  

Within the perimeter of the blast walls is a safe zone, and at the heart of the campus is a grass quad where students are free to act as they like and voice their own thoughts.  Building a community in which students feel comfortable engaging in free discourse is important to the university's academic environment, and plays a foundational role in building a strong civil society that students will export outside the university's walls following their graduation.

Aspects of pedagogy and thought that are central to many Western educational experiences can prove to be revelatory to new students at AUAF.  Given Afghanistan's highly hierarchical social structure where elders make almost all of the most important decisions, the idea that it is the young students' responsibility to take ownership of fixing the country's problems is often intriguing to them.  As Trevithick observed, "We're always telling them to ‘Identify the problem, propose a solution, and try to fix it.' Amazingly, students will come up to staff and professors here later and let us know that they have never been told this before."

In addition to exporting knowledge to villages far from the capital city, the university offers a rare
forum in which individuals from across the country can openly discuss events and debate ideas. As Trevithick explained, "We're the only school in Afghanistan that has the country's name in our name, and we have students from 33 of the 34 provinces.  So, if there's an uprising in, say Ghazni, there's a good chance we have a student from that village that we can ask about it."  In a country that is still in the nascent stages of redeveloping its national character, a place like AUAF is pivotal in building shared relationships and common identities.

The Promise

Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who was awarded an honorary degree of humane letters by the university at the Friends of AUAF gala in March of this year at Washington, D.C.'s Museum of Women in the Arts, has said that he is a "strong believer in the power of education to change our world... at its best, education is a great equalizer.  It unites us." 

The value of education that both Afghans and Americans share is important to remember at times like this, when rhetoric can easily overtake reality.  As Mrs. Shamim Jawad, also an AUAF Board of Trustees member (and wife of Amb. Jawad) said of the university's role in advancing Afghan-American relations: "The people of Afghanistan will never forget your sacrifices and count on your continued support and friendship...Afghan people have come a long way in building a peaceful, pluralistic, and prosperous society, and are determined to finish the journey that we have started jointly with you a decade ago.  I can assure you that Afghans will never return to the dark days of repression."

The marked success of the independent university blazes a trail for other private entities to assume the risk and reward of pursuing their own ventures.  As there is a move from coalition-led projects to Afghan-led initiatives, so too is it time to transition from government-led efforts to private sector-provided services like tertiary education.  The university has already proven to be innovative and successful in a number of valuable ways, and its outlook for the future is equally promising.

CBS reporter Lara Logan summed up the university's value at the Friends of AUAF gala succinctly when she remarked, "There's stuff born in those classrooms that can outlast a war."  If there is anything that the people of Afghanistan need right now, it's the durability of an education that students can never thereafter be deprived of.  


Whitney Grespin/Author Photo

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