Would you risk your life to take business classes?

Many Afghan college students who attend the American University in Afghanistan do. They represent the vanguard of a movement to restore Afghanistan’s intellectual capital – and peace. While militaries come and go, universities are enduring investments, at a fraction of the cost.

Sayyed’s cousins are members of the Taliban. His distant uncle is Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban movement. Any one of them would kill Sayyed if they knew where he was. Yet each day, he attends classes on business and management at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). “My father said I must have an education, because he had one,” says Sayyed. As for his cousins, he notes, “They are illiterate.”

Ten years into the war in Afghanistan, much of the talk is about surges, Taliban muscle, and exit strategies. But a growing number of military and civilian authorities are joining education advocates – people as different as nongovernmental organization English teachers and US military commanders – in agreeing that books and teachers, not just guns and soldiers, are needed to transform the country from a war-weary state to a responsible member of the international community.

Direct and sustained global support for education would hasten this transformation.

Afghan education is on the move

As it stands, education is on the move here, from Kabul to Kandahar – yes, even in the embattled spiritual center of the Taliban. In that volatile province, the United Nations notes that 50 high schools have opened in the past 10 months alone, and more than 100,000 boys and 40,000 girls have begun attending classes in the last year. (Ten years ago, girls were banned from any education, and three out of four boys did not attend school.)

Record numbers of students are applying for admission to college. These students, many of whom have overcome extreme poverty and danger to sit in front of blackboards, represent the vanguard of a movement to restore Afghanistan’s intellectual capital.

It’s an uphill battle in a country roiled by 30 years of war. A myriad of problems remain, from a lack of supplies to a dearth of qualified instructors. However, education is an area where the potential for success is stunning, particularly given the relatively low costs involved.

For less than 15 percent of what the Pentagon spends in Afghanistan every 24 hours, it is possible to open a university, hire international professors with doctoral degrees, provide housing and security, admit close to one thousand students, and keep classes going for five years.

AUAF's students and success

Take AUAF, which quietly opened its doors in Kabul in 2006. Backed by Western governments and individual donors from Afghanistan and abroad, the university has seen its own surge since its first class of just 53 students, having grown to almost 800 men and women in less than five years. AUAF recently finished two new buildings, one for faculty offices and one for student services, to keep up with demand.

Who would risk their life to attend English and business classes? Some, like Sayyed, arrived under trying circumstances. Many are refugees, returning from neighboring countries. Most have harrowing stories to tell of avoiding the Taliban. Almost all have suffered incredible hardship for the opportunity to study on this modest, five-acre campus.

Perhaps because of that adversity, students already exhibit startling leadership skills. With the professional and educated classes decimated by astonishing brain drain and constant warfare, students on campus here – and at other schools around the country – young as they are, are already aides to politicians and doctors, heads of companies, and entrepreneurs starting organizations that will create jobs.

New leaders are an enduring investment

Embracing the freedom granted them on campus, most become increasingly assertive, confident, and secure in their capabilities and visions for the future. While the military convoys that make reconstruction efforts possible roll past the campus gates, the young men and women of AUAF spend their days perfecting English and learning the vagaries of accounting in hopes of launching new enterprises in everything from agriculture to fashion to software. Their tangible optimism about the future, often expressed on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, which are must-haves, is contagious.

This spring, some of these students will receive their degrees in AUAF’s first commencement ceremony. It is a milestone in the university’s young life – and one we should all celebrate.

While militaries come and go, universities are enduring investments. Their agendas are simple: to teach those willing to learn – and to be a beacon to young men and women as they dream about shaping a peaceful and prosperous future for their country.

Dr. C. Michael Smith is the president of the American University of Afghanistan.

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