American University in Kabul: Wielding soft power, in an age of war

After gunmen stormed the American University of Afghanistan campus one night in August 2016, Mohammad Anil Qasemi found himself on a second-story window ledge, ready to jump.

The AUAF student never had the chance: An attacker tossed a grenade, and the explosion threw Mr. Qasemi to the ground with a shrapnel wound to the head and a multitude of broken bones.

As he lay there wounded, the student could not shake earlier words of warning from his father about attending the university: “Don’t go there, because the name ‘American’ itself is a danger.”

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Mr. Qasemi survived, first outwitting Taliban insurgents who searched three times for him that night, and later enduring seven surgeries.

But the attack, which killed 13 people at the American-funded institution, points to the incongruous challenge for the United States of creating a top-flight university in Afghanistan, designed to produce future leaders, while at the same time waging the longest war in U.S. history.

Straddling that contradiction – of establishing a widely appreciated form of benevolent soft power while engaged in a kinetic war – are the Afghan students who say they relish an American-style liberal arts education.

“I want to see hundreds, and thousands, of places of enlightenment such as this one within my country,” says Mr. Qasemi, now in his third year studying business administration, in an interview with a handful of AUAF students behind the fortress-like walls of a new campus in western Kabul.

He notes the dilemma faced by all students here, as “civilians stuck in between parties that are at war.” Indeed, for the first time since the United Nations began keeping count a decade ago, the first three months of 2019 saw more civilians killed by U.S. and Afghan forces than by the Taliban and other insurgents.

“American foreign troops in Afghanistan are contributing to conflict, to violence, to murder of civilians and the terrorists,” says Mr. Qasemi. “And the American University of Afghanistan is contributing to civilization, education, and solutions for challenges, because we learn dialogue.”


While he supports the “elimination” of “terrorists” – a position challenged by some other students – Mr. Qasemi says his education has taught him not to hate even his attackers.

“That is what the power of education is,” says Mr. Qasemi. “It teaches you less hatred, it teaches you more love, it teaches you more respect. It teaches you more tolerance and more solutions.”

Founded by a former Afghan higher education minister, Sharif Fayez, and welcoming students in 2006 – five years after U.S. military forces orchestrated the overthrow of the archconservative Taliban – AUAF has produced more than 1,250 graduates from every province in the country.

Professors from America, Afghanistan, and 17 other nations teach a curriculum tailored to Afghan needs. Courses include conflict resolution, for example, and advanced election law. Classes in Islamic art taught by the renowned historian Michael Barry, formerly a professor at Princeton, reveal Afghanistan’s critical historical role.

At graduation ceremonies on May 21, scores of bright young Afghans were applauded by their families – many of them dressed in traditional, conservative dress – as they collected their diplomas. On the banner above the main stage, in one corner, was the symbol for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the words: “From the American People.”

“The American University is providing a high education to the sons and daughters of the Afghan people,” said Mohammad Arif Noorzai, a former minister of water and energy from Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, whose son earned a diploma. “Through this university, our country and the United States will get connected to each other.”

Students and graduates describe a chain reaction of positive impacts from their education here. Many had to overcome skepticism about going to an “American” school portrayed by the Taliban as a “Christian” university bent on destroying Islam.

“When you come out of these doors, beyond these walls, it is a totally different environment,” says Shafiqa Khpalwak, a third-year political science student and columnist for the BBC Pashto language service.

“You have to prove that you are still a good girl, a good Muslim, a nationalist. You are not lobbying for America, you are not their spy, you are not their agent,” says Ms. Khpalwak, who is from Paktia, south of Kabul.

AUAF “opens the door to the world for you, and you’re faced with different people from different backgrounds,” says Ms. Khpalwak. “Then you become more open-minded. You dream big, you want more, you are a different person.”

The Taliban did not claim responsibility for the 2016 attack, but its operatives praised the results as a strike at the “enemy” and the “Americanization” of Afghanistan. There was, nevertheless, a mosque on the original campus, and another is under construction on the new campus. Among those killed were an instructor of Islamic law and a devout student who led Muslim prayers.

“If you meet someone, you can tell if someone graduated from American University. Their English is great, and the way they think about things,” says a European official in Kabul.

“It’s a very apolitical soft power,” says the official, who requested anonymity. “You have a lot of people who are also very critical of the Americans, to be honest, but who are saying this university does not have a political agenda, and that spreading good liberal arts education is not indoctrinating you in an American-style way.”


Still, an American and an Australian professor kidnapped in mid-2016 are still being held. And the university faces other issues that could jeopardize its future.

The latest quarterly report to the U.S. Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), on April 30, stated that AUAF “had lost more than $63 million since 2012” – roughly one-third of U.S. funding since the university was chartered in 2004.

Audits spanning eight years found “a history of mismanagement, lack of controls, and financial instability,” according to SIGAR. The university “was not sustainable in its present form,” and “posed a clear and present risk to taxpayer funds.”

Investigations continue, and SIGAR reported that the university signed a 19-page agreement on March 29 with USAID suspension officials “to deal with long-standing management and accountability issues.”

The AUAF rejected the charges of “missing millions” in a May 31 statement and noted that the university is “widely considered the single most important and visible legacy of development spending in Afghanistan,” which has created the “backbone of a new generation of Afghan leaders.”

At the recent graduation ceremony, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, extolled the value of the university in an interview.

“You see the return on this investment every day, in the form of past graduates of the university that are now in substantial positions in government and the private sector,” he says. Waging war and boosting education are “different facets” of the U.S. approach to the “ongoing challenges of extremist ideology and terrorism.”


Students say the first challenge of attending AUAF – and the first impact they feel – is often at home.

“My family are supportive of education, but I must say – and the girls here can also attest – when it comes to the American University, the name ‘American’ is included, and you are studying with boys, [so] it puts them in a dilemma,” says Onaba Payab, the first AUAF valedictorian, who later studied under a Fulbright scholarship in California and is now the AUAF director of advancement.

“It’s not that they don’t want it, but it’s the peer pressure they feel from society – ‘Oh, who is going to marry your daughter? And is she a nice person when she graduates?’” says Ms. Payab.

In her case, every one of her 60 or so cousins and uncles criticized her decision to attend AUAF, she says. But today their own daughters are studying at university, and she has become a family decision-maker.

“Right now my father – even if he is buying land in my hometown in Logar, even small things happening in my family – he asks and consults me,” says Ms. Payab. “But a few years ago that didn’t exist. So I can clearly see the impact the education in this university has on me.”

AUAF influence stretches beyond families, says Zainab Azizi, a graduating law student who is a World Economic Forum “Global Shaper,” a platform for youth volunteers that maintains a hub in Kabul.

“The standards built here are being learned by other institutions in Kabul, and that is a huge impact on Afghanistan’s future and its politics, and a huge impact on the mindset of people,” says Ms. Azizi.

“Whether from business, computer science, politics, law, or the judiciary … that ‘Americanization,’ as some people call it, is an enlightenment to all Afghans,” says Ms. Azizi. Graduates “do better services for their own communities. … They are transferring their own knowledge, that professionalism they have learned here.”


And that should be shared beyond AUAF walls, says Hameedullah Hassani, the graduating student body president, who is also a student at the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affair’s Institute of Diplomacy.

“We don’t want them to establish more [American] universities here; we want them to spend that money to strengthen our universities here,” to ensure future sustainability, says Mr. Hameedullah.

One result would be more dialogue in politics, rather than the violence. Student elections provide an example, where two best friends might be vying for votes.

“After one week, they are again best friends,” says Mr. Hameedullah. “In the broader aspect of Afghanistan, we have competition in rural areas and provinces, with guns. But [at AUAF] the competitions are with words, and the competitors accept and respect each other’s ideas.”

Given the choice, some also prefer the AUAF model over more war.

“As an Afghan, I want more education centers from America, rather than bombarding us,” says Ms. Khpalwak. “Please make more universities like this. … Shower us with knowledge, with books and the arts, not with bombs.”

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