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When US troops leave Afghanistan, an American university will remain

US military withdrawal from Afghanistan won't necessarily spell the end of US commitments to Afghanistan, says president of American University of Afghanistan.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / March 14, 2012

When the US government officially withdraws its combat troops from Afghanistan and points at silver linings in those dark clouds, what will America’s legacy be in the minds of Afghans?

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Will it be peace and prosperity, or drone strikes and night letters?

Will it be democratic governance or rampant corruption?

For Michael Smith, an important legacy of the decade-long engagement in Afghanistan will be the American University of Afghanistan, which opened its doors in 2006, has graduated some 42 students, and now has a fulltime student population of 900.

Like its sister organization, the American University of Beirut, the American University of Afghanistan is built to stay, says Mr. Smith, who is the American University of Afghanistan’s president.

“It’s important not to mix up the withdrawal of American troops with the withdrawal of American support for Afghanistan,” says Smith, during a meeting this week at the Monitor. “It does make sense to withdraw troops, because there are diminishing returns from their staying in the country.”

But when it comes to America’s investment in Afghan democratic institutions, infrastructure, and in education, he adds, “given the investment the US has made in Afghanistan, it doesn’t make sense to walk away from that.”

Make no mistake: The next few years are not going to be easy ones for any institution in Afghanistan that bears the name “American.”

With Afghans protesting against the “unintentional” burning of Qurans by NATO troops at Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, and more recently against the killing of 16 Afghan civilians by a US Army sergeant near Kandahar; with continued disaffection at the lengthy stay of US troops and the lack of security in the country; with growing anger at the persistence of corruption in the US-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, there is very little cachet these days that comes with “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

But Smith and other administrators at the American University are banking on Afghans being able to distinguish between the activities of the US military and the development work of other parts of the US government.

“The more we’re seen meeting the real needs of the country, that will hold the university in really good stead,” says Smith. “Hopefully, we’ll be seen as separate and different, and not a target, despite the American name.”

There are signs of hope, certainly, as 900 full time students and 800 other short-course students are now enrolled at American University of Afghanistan. The first batch of 32 students graduated last spring. Smith recently signed a 99-year lease of an 80-acre property in Kabul. Ground has already been broken for a Center for Women’s Economic Development, and ground will be broken on a new academic building at graduation this coming spring. Much of the funding for the university comes from the US government, but increasingly Afghans themselves are donating funds, buildings, and scholarships.

But there are also challenges.


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