(Editor’s note: This article is part of a Just Security series: Reflections on Afghanistan on the Eve of Withdrawal.)
For most of the world, the story of Afghanistan today is about departure. Bagram Air Base was handed over to the Afghan government in the days before July 4, a date accelerated from but no less symbolically potent than the initial September 11 deadline to complete the withdrawal of U.S. troops. The U.S. Congress and the Biden administration are poised to hasten and potentially expand the Special Immigrant Visa program for Afghans seeking safe haven after years working side by side with American troops and contractors. International aid workers are rapidly concluding projects and boarding their homebound flights from Kabul Airport, the future defense of which is itself the subject of ongoing negotiations with Turkish security troops. The sky over Kabul, which had been loud with the sound of transport helicopters supporting the military drawdown, is now mostly quiet.
Less present in media representations of what has been compared to the U.S. military’s chaotic exit from Saigon in 1975 is the story of who remains behind and what we continue to believe is possible for Afghanistan. Each morning, in view of the restored, gleaming domes of Parliament and Darul Aman Palace, the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) tranquilly begins its operations. Even in a summer of recurring COVID-19 quarantines, rolling energy outages, and heightened security, AUAF’s students, faculty, and professional staff affirm their hopes for an improved Afghanistan in acts as simple as logging into virtual classrooms and showing up — online and on campus — to our shared work.
Education is an inherently optimistic enterprise. Its practice both assumes and creates the possibility for change — yet of a kind that takes a long time, as successive generations apply new knowledge and agency to the society they inherit. When I arrived in Kabul this year as the new president of AUAF, the hard certainty of an eventual American troop withdrawal was brightened, a little, by a single remarkable fact: In the early years of what would become America’s longest war, the wisdom and foresight existed to couple military intervention with significant investment in civic institutions, most notably an American-style university where academic freedom and equal opportunity would prevail. By contrast, it took nearly 50 post-conflict years for the American government to fund a similar project in Vietnam, where I held my last administrative post.
In other words, in Afghanistan, there was a form of optimism and a commitment to the long future embedded within an inherently volatile and impermanent military campaign, and in a way that differs from standard rubrics of “nation building” or even “soft power.” The goal is not to determine an outcome for Afghanistan, but to equip a young leadership cohort for self-determination.
As anyone who has been involved in the establishment of a new university can attest, such an undertaking would be difficult anywhere in the world. Yet because AUAF is the only university of its kind in an active warzone, there was perhaps no way to anticipate exactly how difficult, or what the unique challenges would be. We raise funds for scholarships and new facilities, like any university you could name; we also check perimeter walls and analyze local security developments. We create programs, hire expert faculty, recruit students; we also counsel students and employees on personal safety in a kinetic environment.
Most importantly, we enable and enact change that is no less significant for being, at times, incremental. Our inaugural class in 2006 consisted of 50 male students and just one female student. Fifteen years later, we now enroll a thousand graduate and undergraduate students, nearly half women. This represents not only progress at AUAF but within Afghan society at large, where assumptions about gender equality are rapidly catching up with the most aspirational international standards. Eleven percent of our graduates have received Fulbright scholarships to study abroad, the highest percentage of any university in the world. Afghanistan’s young people, empowered by institutions such as ours and by a widening digital window to the world, increasingly view themselves as global citizens with an important role to play in their own country’s future.
Nothing brought this home to me more than a Q&A I had with AUAF students around a bonfire during my earliest weeks on campus. Their first questions were a reminder that in addition to their particular courage and determination, they are first, foremost, and simply college students, generationally in step and in touch with their international peers: What’s your favorite Taylor Swift song? Can we stay out after curfew? (The campus curfew, a security measure as well as a nod to social mores, may not be a global norm among universities — but our students’ cheerful resistance to it certainly is.) Then one student asked a question of the kind that as a university administrator, in my experience, you only hear from those who have significant worries of their own: “What worries you most?”
I’ll answer here as I answered then: It’s not the troop withdrawal. My colleagues and friends are generally surprised to hear that I don’t have a standard pro or con opinion on the matter – only a perspective that the blanket media focus on troop levels and presence tends to obscure bigger questions about what’s next.
What worries me most is the relative presence or absence of what it all depends upon, which George Packer, writing in The Atlantic on March 26, calls “imagination and preparation.” An evident lack of these qualities in the withdrawal’s rushed implementation has already destabilized a fragile central government, produced fear among women and other disenfranchised groups who have achieved major gains over the last 20 years, and upset peace talks in Doha and more planned talks in Istanbul. But the same qualities — imagination and preparation — were abundant in the inclusion of a university like AUAF among early American priorities in Afghanistan, and, even more remarkably, in continuous bipartisan support for Afghan education throughout some of the most politically dissonant years in American history.
At AUAF, we teach students to imagine the future they want, and we prepare them for the challenges they will certainly encounter in their work to create it. After the last troops depart, America’s most important legacy in Afghanistan remains — a permanent commitment to positive change, fueled by a new generation of highly educated, highly motivated young leaders.