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After militants stormed the American University of Afghanistan’s campus in an August attack that killed 15 people and injured dozens more, the university’s founding president, Sharif Fayez, walked the campus. He saw bloodstains everywhere.
“It broke my heart,” said Fayez, a former minister of higher education in Afghanistan. “I tried so hard not to put my foot on the blood of my students, and I cried. I cried so hard.”
“That day was the most painful day in my life,” he said. “I still think about why it happened -- is the university to blame for this, me as the founder of the university?”
“This is very painful, it’s not easy. Sometimes in the middle of night I wake up and think about it: Why, what was the fault of these students? They had nothing to do with the establishment of the university; they were just there to learn. We were not teaching American ideology if there is such a thing as American ideology.”
“Why were they killed? Who was to blame? All these questions bothered me,” Fayez said. But he believes the university should reopen even so.
“I don’t want the Taliban to think that they have gained a victory, that they have been able to close down the university,” he said. “If today we close down the American University of Afghanistan, then Kabul University might have the same problem.”
“We have to stop them; we have to fight this. This is darkness. How can we not reopen the American University of Afghanistan, which has become very popular in this country?” he asked.
“But we have to make sure that it’s a safe place for young people, and that’s a priority.”
More than 700 students were on the AUAF campus when the attack began on the evening of Aug. 24 -- evening being the peak time for classes at the university -- about 600 of whom evacuated in the initial minutes after the explosion that set off the attack. Three militants reportedly conducted the attack: one drove a car filled with explosives into a university wall, blowing a hole in it, and two others, armed with guns and grenades, ran onto the campus, which they held under siege for nearly 10 hours overnight, according to The New York Times.
The attack, which killed seven students, one professor, four guards -- including a guard at a neighboring high school for the blind -- and three police officers, came two and a half weeks after the abduction of two AUAF professors, American and Australian citizens, respectively, who remain missing.
‘Radical’ Changes to Security Planned
In an extended interview with Inside Higher Ed, AUAF’s new acting president described a need to make “radical” changes in the university’s security in the wake of the two attacks in time for a planned reopening of the campus in January.
In meeting with families of the victims, “I tell them I pledge that I, the university, the board, we will do everything we can to have the best security in place,” said David Sedney (right), the acting president. “And while we can’t promise complete security, we can promise we are going to have to make bold, new, radical changes to our security posture.”
Sedney, formerly a member of AUAF’s Board of Trustees, stepped into the acting president role about a month after the attack when the former president, Mark A. English, announced his resignation, citing personal and family reasons. An analyst and commentator on national security and foreign policy-related issues, Sedney formerly worked in various high-level positions in the U.S. government, including as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia from 2009-13, and as deputy chief of mission for the U.S. embassy in Kabul in the early 2000s.
Sedney described a need for significant changes in the physical security and “security culture” of the decade-old university in response to changing security conditions in Afghanistan.
The coeducational, American-style university accepted its first group of students in March 2006, about four and a half years after the launch of the American-led invasion of Afghanistan. AUAF has been heavily funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, to the tune of more than $80 million in committed funds. The English-language institution offers undergraduate degrees in business administration, information technology and computer science, political science and public administration, and law -- the latter program was created with the help of Stanford University -- and a master’s of business administration. It also offers training and customized education programs through its Professional Development Institute in Kabul and at four regional centers.
For the first decade of its existence, Sedney said, the university was perceived as an “island of security” in a “sea of terror.” Though an AUAF political science professor and a student affairs officer were among those killed in a Taliban attack at a Kabul restaurant in 2014, the university campus itself, Sedney pointed out, had not sustained any attack prior to August even as nearby nongovernmental organizations and government buildings did.
Not only that, he said, but the campus in West Kabul, that of an old international school that operated from the 1950s until the 1970s, had been spared the destruction that leveled many of the buildings around it in the conflicts of the successive decades. Sedney recalled visiting in his capacity as deputy chief of mission for the embassy in 2002 and finding, “amid this scene of incredible devastation,” the campus of the old international school to be “untouched …. It not only was untouched, the glass was still in the windows, the desks were still in the classrooms …. There were even some school supplies.”
“The respect for education gave, did give, an immunity from the kind of destruction that was around it,” Sedney said. “So people did see this as an island of security in the midst of a sea of terror. And the evidence based on what was happening around them was that that was the case. So, if you look back at our security situation before those two attacks, you can say there’s a lot to criticize, because we didn’t build this wall, we didn’t have this guard tower, we didn’t have this many protective people, whatever, and those are all true, but at the same time what’s happened is the security situation here in Kabul has changed. Since the withdrawal of the United States troops, security throughout all of Afghanistan has deteriorated.”
Sedney added, “But the Taliban also have made some kind of major, moral decision to attack a university and attack students.”
On the one hand, education is an established militant target. A 2014 report from the Global Coalition to Protect Education From Attack cites United Nations figures estimating that there were more than 1,000 attacks on education in Afghanistan from 2009-12 -- including bombings and arson attacks against schools and killings and abductions of staff -- with attacks in some cases being motivated by “opposition to the perceived ‘Western’ or ‘un-Islamic’ curriculum, external affiliations of the school or the perceived role of Western forces in rebuilding some schools, the education of girls generally, or any operation of the central government.”
That said, an analysis published last month by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a nonprofit research organization, observes that school attacks have been confined to rural areas and takes note of the Taliban’s “officially more tolerant position vis-à-vis educational institutions in recent years.” In principle, the article notes, the Taliban considers educational institutions “off-limits” for attacks.
The analysis by Borhan Osman describes the attack on AUAF as “unprecedented in many respects. For the first time, a ‘complex attack’ -- often reserved for high-profile and well-guarded targets -- hit an educational institution. It also came in the wake of an ideological campaign by circles in the Taliban movement that had demonized the American University Afghanistan as a center of hostile ‘Western’ efforts.”
“The situation has changed,” said Sedney, the acting AUAF president. “So in terms of specifics we’re obviously going to do the physical things, such as we’re going to build higher walls -- I’m not going to tell you how high or how thick or anything like that -- we’re going to have a much better guard force, much better equipped and much more professional. We are going to have people with more effective ways of countering violent attacks.”
“Even more important than what we do physically is we have to change our security culture,” Sedney said. “We now have to accept the fact that we are regarded as a target by the Taliban” -- in the same way, he said, that other NGOs that have sustained attacks in Kabul “have also had to move from being seen as immune from attack as they have been attacked in recent years.”
“So our change has come later -- the various NGOs in Kabul have made major changes in their security posture in the last six months as a result of both Taliban attacks and kidnappings -- and we are going to do the same and I think we’re going to do more and better.”
A Danger Zone
In the aftermath of the attack on the campus, some have questioned whether AUAF should have done more earlier to respond to the deteriorating security conditions in Kabul.
Sedney said that while there have been regular, general threat warnings for Kabul and West Kabul over the past 15 years, “there have not been any, repeat not any, specific threats against the university that I know of.” He added that having checked with “all available sources,” Afghan and otherwise, “there was no indication of any direct threat to AUAF in advance of the attack. In the period before the attack, we received no warnings from any Afghan or other institution about a possible attack.”
But a U.S. Department of State travel warning for Afghanistan published June 22, as well as a more recent warning updated Oct. 5, mentions the general risk of attacks against a long list of possible targets including “educational centers.” Numerous security messages sent by the U.S. embassy in Kabul in 2015 and 2016 reference risks to educational centers with “potential American connections” while one, from February 2015, specifically references the “American University” as an example of the type of educational center at risk of attack.
“We’re not very satisfied with how the university conducted itself,” said Barry Salaam, a journalist and civil society activist whose nephew was killed in the attack. “There are a lot of signs that the university management mishandled the whole situation, especially not taking seriously the threats that were there for a long time.”
Salaam said the kidnapping of the two faculty members was “a big warning …. That was a bad incident but in a way it should have alerted them to something more dangerous, which it didn’t. They were asleep. They didn’t realize what was going on around them.”
Mohammad Isaqzadeh, a former chair of AUAF’s political science department, sent an Aug. 29 email to former president English, cc’d to many faculty and board members, accusing the university of failing to protect its students and faculty. In that email, Isaqzadeh -- who describes AUAF as “the only oasis of hope in that land of disappointment” -- faults the university’s leadership for not having taken security more seriously.
“Unfortunately, the AUAF leadership simply ignored the warnings and requests by the faculty and local staff to fill in the security gaps,” Isaqzadeh wrote. ”I personally had warned about the fragile wall that was toppled down easily by the insurgent attacks and asked the university to reinforce it with concrete walls. Many faculty members and I also opposed holding classes or events when there were reports of serious attacks against the university. Such efforts, however, were simply ignored by the AUAF leadership. The decision to resume the classes for the fall semester without taking extra security measures just one month after two AUAF instructors were kidnapped seemed imprudent.”
(Incidentally, Isaqzadeh’s email also takes issue with a ban English had imposed on staff talking to the press. He wrote, “As an American academic institution, AUAF is supposed to be the champion of freedom of speech and expression in that nascent democracy. One wonders what are the motives behind this move and what is to be hidden from the public.”)
Isaqzadeh was one of a number of current or former professors who raised concerns about AUAF’s security in conversations with Inside Higher Ed. In an interview Isaqzadeh, who taught at the university from January 2011 to May 2015, said he left because he felt unsafe. He cited the messages from the U.S. embassy in Kabul pointing, if indirectly, to possible attacks on the university during his last year there.
“There were a lot of concerns among faculty and staff about security threats,” said Isaqzadeh. “But the university leadership unfortunately failed to take constructive measures in order to increase the security or sometimes I thought they were taking unnecessary risk. For instance there were rumors that the university was under threat in the next, let’s say, for instance, one week and then the university would just continue holding classes without taking additional security measures.”
English, the president from January 2015 through late September 2016, when he resigned, disputed Isaqzadeh’s account in answers to emailed questions. “Although it is policy not to discuss the details of security, the security for the entire campus and community was always a top priority for me,” he said. “Because of the need not to discuss security details, not everyone on campus understood the reasons for every security decision while there is ongoing activity to fill all the security gaps. Therefore, some may have come to the wrong conclusions.”
English said, “The university is always in contact with the regional security officer at the U.S. Embassy as well as other intelligence sources for all potential threat warnings and has ceased classes and closed the university on several occasions based on these warnings. On the night of the attack there was no such warning from these sources.”
English’s previous position before coming to AUAF was as superintendent of a K-12 school in Saudi Arabia. He had a controversial tenure at the university, which included a faculty-led campaign for a vote of no confidence last fall.
Via email English listed multiple steps to improve security taken by the university after the kidnapping, which occurred on Darulaman Road, the street fronting the university. These steps include being granted controlled access to the slip road in front of the university -- always, he said, “a top priority for me so that we could monitor and control the vehicular traffic adjacent to the university” -- and the switch to using armored vehicles and armed guards to transport staff and faculty. Previously the standard procedure involved unarmored vehicles with unarmed escorts.
“I hope your article will focus on what all of us have tried to do to foster a safe and secure educational environment in a very demanding environment,” said English.
Sedney stressed that the university had “taken strong security measures over the years” and said that before the attack “security measures at AUAF were much, much stronger that at any other university in Afghanistan.”
Cecil Lui, an associate professor of finance who was injured in the attack, said that before the kidnapping he had felt relatively well protected on the campus. “It’s not very safe because after all it’s Afghanistan, but I had quite a lot of confidence in our security team,” he said. “I saw security guards everywhere on campus. I didn’t know they failed so easily and so fast.”
Lui was lecturing on the second floor of a classroom building known as the Bayat Building when the attack began. He recalled hiding with about 30 students in a classroom, waiting to be rescued, but the insurgents entered the building instead. He said he was hit in the neck, ear, kidney and arm by shrapnel and injured his left arm -- breaking and dislocating his wrist and dislocating his elbow -- jumping out of the building from the second floor. He was hospitalized in Turkey for more than two weeks and recently underwent another surgery on his wrist after his return to his home base of Hong Kong. Some of his students in that class were also wounded. One, whom he identified by her first name, Jamila, died. (Short biographies of Jamila and some of the other victims of the attack can be found on the Friends of the AUAF website here.)
Lui now uses the word “incompetency” to characterize the university’s security. “A team of security staff shouldn’t be outnumbered by two insurgents,” he said.
Focus on the Future
Investigations into the Aug. 24 attack are planned or ongoing. Sedney wrote in an Oct. 1 email to students, faculty, staff and alumni that the university would conduct its own investigation into the attack in addition to the official one being conducted by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security. He pledged that the university’s investigation “will be professional and thorough and will be advised by a committee comprising representatives of families, students, faculty and staff. As the investigation proceeds we will work to pass on to the university community the results, particularly as they apply to improving our security posture.”
“My focus has to be on the future,” Sedney said. “The investigation is a serious and important thing, but my focus is on getting the security in place so that we can start classes, open the university by the January deadline which I have set for myself, which my colleagues on the board agree with, which every faculty member, staff member, student, person I’ve spoken to here, and actually the majority of the families I’ve spoken to believe in that.”
To that end Sedney said AUAF has been undergoing a series of security audits conducted by international security firms and government agencies, and will be working with its funders to try to get additional resources to put recommended physical security and personnel changes in place.
“Improved security will require much greater resources,” Sedney said. “Already AUAF spends a much greater portion of its budget on security than any similar institution in Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world that I know of. My job is to get the resources for those security improvements and put them in place while also providing alternative educational paths so our students can resume their studies as soon as possible.”
Among the planned changes in security personnel, Inside Higher Ed has learned that the university has received a waiver from presidential decree that will allow it to contract with its own private security company rather than rely on the Afghan Public Protection Force, a pay-for-service guard force that’s housed under Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior. A decree issued by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2010 otherwise limits the use of private security companies to diplomatic and military installations. (There were three types of guards present at AUAF on the day of the attack: the university’s own hired guards, armed and unarmed, and the APPF guards.)
Another security-related change is that Sedney said he plans to better integrate AUAF into intelligence networks of Afghan and international government agencies and embassies in terms of information sharing. “We’re going to be a much more integral part of those networks than we ever have before so we can be fully prepared and raise and lower our security posture based on the current threat level. Now, will that prevent any attack in the future? Unfortunately the history in Afghanistan is no, but we can reduce, and reduce a lot, the odds of an attack happening and also increase the chances that if an attack does happen we can have minimal or no casualties by having the right kinds of responses and the right kinds of internal procedures.”
AUAF, in other words, is digging in. It doesn’t plan to go anywhere. But while AUAF has resolved to reopen and to continue its educational project, another Western-style -- in this case K-12 -- educational institution that was formerly funded by USAID, the International School of Kabul, opted to close in January 2015.
Security was not the only reason. Joe Hale, the president of Oasis International Schools, which ran the school in Kabul, explained via email that the school had accumulated $700,000 in debt due to the high costs of scholarships and security and said that the Afghan government wasn’t in a position to provide the kind of help the school was seeking -- such as land for a new, more secure campus -- in order to reach a more sustainable business model.
But while security wasn’t the only reason for closing, Hale said it was one of two major factors. “The attack on AUAF was painful news to us, but also reassuring that our difficult decision to close ISK was a wise one,” he said. “Our own assessment of security, as well as the advice we received from our security company and others, left us convinced that ISK had become a ‘likely’ target for a terrorist attack, rather than a ‘possible’ target. We felt the lives of our 400 students, 40 American staff members and many local staff were at the highest level of risk during our 10-year tenure in Kabul.”
“There are no easy answers for them,” Raj Chandarlapaty, an assistant professor of English at AUAF said of the university. “They have the philosophy ‘we’re not going to surrender, we’re not going to give in to terrorism.’ The illusion exists with AUAF that they are a society of their own, they are their own country that can stand up to insurgents. I really wonder if they can do it. I say more power to them, but the simple fact is there are people on the campus who probably give information to the terrorists. That skewers education.”
“Can you really stop people from masterminding these kinds of attacks?” Chandarlapaty asked. “Can you do that for this university so the university can grow and prosper and improve the lives of Afghans? That’s very much in question.”