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In Afghanistan, the American University Was a Symbol of Freedom—but Biden Abandoned it

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The American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) was an American symbol in Afghanistan. After the disastrous withdrawal of troops, which brought serious consequences and wounds to the nation, this institution was taken over by the Taliban, in an unmistakable message from the terrorist group against the soft power of the United States. Now the university no longer exists, not even on the Internet, since the AUAF’s own directors and managers had to erase all records, servers and documentation linking its students, professors and workers to the United States.

Is this an exaggeration? Not at all. In its short but rich history, the American University of Afghanistan suffered terrorist attacks. Its employees, professors, and students were killed and kidnapped by the Taliban. The most remembered episodes occurred in August 2016, first with the kidnapping of two professors, one American and one Australian who were then released three years later in a hostage exchange by Taliban prisoners. Then, weeks later, something really tragic happened: an attack with gunfire and explosives at the university caused the death of 15 people and left more than 50 injured.

However, the faculty, authorities, and student body were always resilient, and even the attacks did not dampen the morale of the American University of Afghanistan. The students always came back and sent the message to those who would do harm: education will continue, despite violence and terrorism.

The idea of creating this university began in 2002 with Dr. Sharif Fayez, who served as Afghanistan’s Minister of Higher Education. From that time, when the university was just a dream, the Bush-era U.S. government pledged to financially support the programs of the future private Afghan university. Finally, in 2006, the American University of Afghanistan was officially born with the unrestricted support of the American government, which was key to the development and later apogee of the house of studies.

With this background, the United States should have every reason to be proud of this university. Unfortunately, it seems that the Biden administration did not care much about the history of the American University of Afghanistan, at least not to help the students after the terrorists took over Kabul and, with it, its faculty.

american university
Students attend their graduation ceremony at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul, Afghanistan, on July 15, 2017. (Image: EFE)

Abandoning the students of the American University of Afghanistan is a disgrace to the country

It does no good to have supported for years resilient young Afghans who believed in the future — or at least a different way of doing things — if when they are actually in harm’s way, the federal government abandons them.

In an interview with Peter Bergen, published on CNN on August 31, Leslie Schweitzer, a member of the university’s board of trustees and president of the Friends of the American University of Afghanistan, explained the risks to the students and how the United States did too little to help them.

According to Bergen, Ms. Schweitzer “spent much of the past week with the president of the university, Ian Bickford, and other members of the board in Doha, Qatar, assisting with the effort to evacuate around 4,000 students, faculty, Afghan national staff and their families, as well as alumni — namely, all of those who had been involved with the American University of Afghanistan over the past decade and a half”

Schweitzer said their “evacuation efforts have not been as successful as we wanted, primarily because of several logistical and policy constraints, not to mention the volume of people we needed to evacuate in the middle of one of the largest airlifts in history.”

“We started by prioritizing our students and, obviously, our expats, which we were able to get out. But we’ve only been able to get about 50 students out and then we have another, 50 to 75 students who were able to escape on their own,” added the board member.

The Biden administration did not consider the students to be at “risk”

Bergen asked Schweitzer about a failed departure from Afghanistan by a group of students from the university headed for the Kabul airport on Sunday, Aug. 29. “What happened?” he questioned, “why were the students unable to leave?” he asked.

“We had a sophisticated method of communicating with the whole American University of Afghanistan community. We knew how to reach them via email or phone, and we were prepared at any moment if we received any positive indication that we could move them in large numbers,” Schweitzer began by explaining.

“On Sunday we contacted our students. There were 200-and-some-odd people on buses going to the Kabul airport. They were picked up at various locations around Kabul. They were not in a safe house. But we found out at about the same time that the American University of Afghanistan was not considered a priority by the US government, and we didn’t fit the qualifications, evidently, of being at risk,” she said.

Now the future of the students is “uncertain,” according to Ian Bickford, president of the American University of Afghanistan, who appeared on CNN’s “New Day” to explain the plight of those associated with the school.

“The future of our students, staff and faculty in the country remains unclear. We don’t know the level of persecution they will face,” Bickford told New Day, explaining that the university spent the last few weeks trying to help its students and that its “best hope” for getting many out of the country was the failed operation on Sunday the 29th.

“We organized a convoy of more than a dozen buses. Something like 500 students, close to 600 students, family, staff, faculty boarded those buses with the sincere hope that they would be given permission to enter the airport, board flights and begin their journey to a better life,” Bickford said of the Sunday effort.”

For the university president, it is vital that these students maintain their dreams of study, because at some point, despite the current difficulties, they may be valuable to their country.

“It’s very important that they are able to continue their studies so that they can bring their ambition their optimism and their hope for Afghanistan back home, perhaps in a distant future, but they’re still hopeful that their country will resume some level of free and fair civil society.”

What happened is very sad. The U.S. abandoned the thousands of students it supported for years to their fate. Most AUAF students are Afghans from various parts of the country who proudly attended the most prestigious private university in Afghanistan. It was not only going to this place to be educated, but to be part of its history, of what it represented: to go against Islamic fundamentalism that curtails educational rights, to be part of the intellectual and professional generation that would be key in building Afghanistan as a nation, and to have the opportunity to lift their families out of poverty by becoming a source of pride for the neighborhood or district, because attending AUAF was something prestigious and complex to achieve.

The history and context could not be clearer: the American University of Afghanista, its faculty, staff and student body were much more than just pieces that made up a house of learning on the other side of the world. For the United States, these people should have had a higher regard and value. That the Biden administration has left them to their fate is a disgrace as a nation.

Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón is a journalist at El American specializing in the areas of American politics and media analysis // Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón es periodista de El American especializado en las áreas de política americana y análisis de medios de comunicación.

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