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.

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?

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.

Anti-American sentiment now seems to have become mainstream, and often ripples out to affect Western aid groups and the United Nations in general. Last year after an American preacher threatened to burn copies of the Quran, Islam’s sacred text, protestors in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif attacked the closest thing to an American target that they could find: a United Nations guesthouse. Seven aid workers were killed in revenge, and the guesthouse was burned.

American University is not the only foreign-funded higher education institution in Afghanistan. There are a few Iranian funded universities in the western Afghan city of Herat, and a large Iranian-funded madrassa, or theological seminary, in Kabul itself.

The United Arab Emirates is now funding a college for women in the southeastern Afghan town of Khost. India is planning to start a mining school as well. By helping members of the Afghan elite to attain higher education in Afghanistan, each of these countries is not only helping build the capacity of Afghans to run their own country. They are also exerting “soft power” that puts the donor country into a positive light, and thus serve the donor country’s national interests.

Pushing the Taliban out of power, in theory, also should have served US national interests, and in the early days of America’s military presence in Afghanistan, many Afghans were grateful to have US troops around. But with every passing year, and the occasional errant drone strike on civilian populations, America’s military presence has become a sore point for Afghans, and even for Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

President Obama last year mapped out the drawdown of US troops, toward total withdrawal in 2014. But as Rand Corporation analyst Seth Jones pointed out, in a recent discussion on National Public Radio, final withdrawal does not necessarily mean zero US troops in Afghanistan by 2014.

… it's unclear what happens in 2013, 2014 and beyond.

Will that mean zero U.S. forces? I have never heard anybody privately say that means zero. The talk now is 15,000 to 20,000 or 25,000, somewhere in that category. I think the subject of discussion now is, will this be mostly a move away from a conventional counterinsurgency model to more special operations and CIA units, much like the U.S. was involved in the Philippines or Colombia or El Salvador?

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