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Kabul’s American University Facing New Threats | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Female students arrive for orientation at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul in March. (Mohammad Ismail/REUTERS)

Kabul- In late March, students at the American University of Afghanistan returned to a new main campus — fortified by 19-foot-high concrete walls — after a devastating terrorist attack last year that left 15 dead, including seven students.

But the reality of life in the country’s increasingly violent capital soon intruded: One of the school’s adjunct professors and a graduate were killed May 31 when a truck bomb detonated in central Kabul, killing more than 150 people.

In the political recrimination that followed, the Taliban issued a new threat targeting the safety of their Western hostages — including two professors taken at gunpoint outside the school last August. The university administration again called for their safe release.

Teachers and students say they are determined to carry on despite the threats to the college, founded in 2006 to provide an American-style liberal arts education to Afghans. The school is heavily subsidized by US taxpayers, with the US government funding 70 percent of its costs — just over $20 million this year.

“We haven’t closed, we haven’t stopped educating,” said David S. Sedney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia who spent nine months as acting president of the school and revamped its security. “But we do watch things very carefully. But right now on balance, it’s the right thing to do to continue operations.”

The school’s rebirth comes at a time when the security situation in Afghanistan is worsening, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis telling a Senate committee this week that the enemy is “surging” and that the United States is “not winning in Afghanistan right now.” Fresh troops may arrive, but the Trump Administration is also proposing steep cuts to international aid.

The school had 50 students when it opened more than a decade ago, an Afghan-chartered institution funded by the US Agency for International Development, the World Bank and others. Former first lady Laura Bush was a staunch supporter early on and has remained so, Sedney said.

By 2011, the college had its first graduating class of more than 100 students and now awards undergraduate degrees in a variety of fields as well as a master’s in business administration.

The school’s old campus, built on the grounds of a shuttered international school, became an “oasis” of learning in a war-torn country where male and female students mingled freely — unusual in a deeply conservative Muslim society — in classrooms led by Americans and international teachers.

As its prestige grew, the university attracted other, unwanted attention — from the Taliban. In a report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network published shortly after the August attack, analyst Borhan Osman wrote that the Taliban had long written about the school in its literature in books and online, portraying it as “a key center of US efforts to stop the emergence of an Islamic government in Afghanistan.” The militants called the school “Kabul’s Christian University” and said it promoted moral corruption through co-ed classes.

The terrorists first struck on Aug. 7, 2016, abducting the two professors from their car just outside the school. The men — American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — later appeared, gaunt and tearful, in a hostage video. Officials say they are being held with other Westerners by the Haqqani wing of the Taliban.

Then, on Aug. 24, suicide attackers detonated a car bomb outside the university wall, ­entered the campus and hunted down and shot fleeing student and teachers, as others barricaded themselves in classrooms.

The Washington Post