American University of Afghanistan was supposed to be a jewel sparkling amidst
others, provided by the Americans as they transformed the country into a modern
state, complete with a well-funded university. It was the stuff of neo-liberal
dreams, with a vast array of subjects and majors, a US trained faculty — all of
it to train deprived Afghans and enable a tremendous cultural and political
revival, sans the Islamist Afghan Taliban.
were doubts, no one dared utter them. Uncertainty of purpose, questioning of
the precept that the war that was waged to remake Afghanistan in America’s
democratic and educated image, would deflate the men and women who were putting
their lives on the line to make it a reality.
an investigator tasked with looking into the misuse of funds at the American
university in Kabul did speak up and he summed up the situation thus: “If the
United States government had paid to send every Afghan graduate to college in
the United States, it would have spent less money than it did on financing a
troubled, English-language university for them in the Afghan capital.” Over the
past decade, as the war in Afghanistan was dragged on by changing US
presidents, the American university in Kabul was able to see the graduation of
only 1,216 students. According to the calculations made by investigators
looking into the misuse of funds, each of these students cost the American
taxpayer $126,000 per student or $163 million.
It is no
surprise, given these figures that the university may soon cease to exist.
According to a report published in The New York Times, the university which was
supposed to be one of the most high-profile projects that the Americans were
undertaking in Afghanistan may soon run out of money and shut its doors.
USAID’s contract to keep the university open and functioning is set to expire
soon. Administrators at the university said they had the funds to keep it going
until the end of June. Beyond that, there was no plan for what would happen to
the campus or the enrolled students.
even less of an idea as to why the institution, which had hoped to provide a
state-of-the-art American-style education to young Afghans, has become such a
cesspit of graft and criminal corruption.
may lie in the other stalled effort being carried out by the Americans in
Afghanistan. Last month, the sixth session of the talks stalled and ended
without progress after just two days. The US Special Representative Zalmay
Khalizad decried the slow pace of the talks given the continuing Taliban
attacks against civilians and asked both sides to “reduce violence.”
It is a
routine sort of statement in recent times, as the surprising turn of the United
States to undertake negotiations with the Taliban has become less startling.
The American University of Afghanistan, whose campus vicinity recently saw yet
another bomb attack, is another matter. The university was supposed to signify
all the neo-liberal values that the Taliban have openly decried. Male and
female students studying together, no requirements of covering and veiling for
students, Western-style instruction in English — all representing the
Afghanistan whose realisation the Taliban have fought hard to prevent.
would have been the university of American dreams. The truths coming out of the
investigation of the university now reveal that the kind of educational
institution envisioned by both by those who fought against it and those who
championed it, never was. In its place was a fragile structure whose mechanisms
of accountability and evaluation were a house of cards, penetrable and easy to
and educators who were a part of it seemed to have concluded early on that the
US promise was hollow and unrealisable. Better then to divvy up the spoils
while it could still be done, steal and hide and embezzle while the going was
good, and the Americans were doling out the cash.
are obviously now over. Trump’s USAID has already seen huge cuts and
Afghanistan is not on the president’s list as the recipient of benevolent
dole-outs of cash. It is in this sense, an analogy to Afghanistan itself. While
the American war was based on defending avowed liberal and democratic values
and the Taliban who opposed them, the real threat to a revamped Afghanistan has
been the more workaday evils of corruption, stealing and the misuse of funds.
There seems never to have been a plan to combat these or to prevent them from
derailing projects like the set-up and administration of an entire university.
is ticking on the American University of Afghanistan. According to a report published
by SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the
university has lost $63m since 2012. Its proponents have not yet given up,
however, with many of them arguing that this is higher learning under special
circumstances. Not all institutions of higher learning have to move to a
heavily fortified campus because of repeated bomb attacks and unending threats
from terrorist groups. If it costs more to administer, then it is not because
of internal problems but these external ones.
It is a
wishful sort of excuse and no one seems to be buying it in D.C. So far there
are no pending measures that would provide emergency funding for the
university. Its fate, then, seems to be the one that could have been predicted
long ago, an institution where too many were stealing instead of enabling
higher learning — an institution that like the American dream for Afghanistan,
has crumbled and crashed to bits.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney teaching
constitutional law and political philosophy.