Fear for the Future

Scholars and students face desperate circumstances following Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

August 17, 2021
A student at the American University of Afghanistan during final exam week in 2019.
(Scott Peterson/Getty Images News/Getty Images Europe)

Ahmad Zahid Mujaddedi logged in for a Zoom call late Saturday night after a long day helping distribute clothing and blankets collected for internally displaced people who had gathered in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he is enrolled at the American University of Afghanistan.

The situation was dire. The Taliban’s advance through the central Asian country had been rapid -- Mujaddedi said he'd left his home province, Logar, for the capital city, Kabul, on the day the Taliban took the province -- and news reports warned that Kabul could fall to the Taliban in a matter of weeks.

Mujaddedi's thoughts were focused on the displaced people he and fellow AUAF students had helped earlier that day -- the children without food, the women without access to toilets -- and on the future of his country. He worried that the progress of the last 20 years and the rights that had been gained for women and for members of minority groups would be rolled back.

“I don’t want it to go away; I don’t want it to be demolished. All my worries are about the dignity of Afghans, about the beautiful country that we have, about the educational development that we have made so far,” Mujaddedi said Saturday night.

Kabul fell to Taliban control the next day.

“Basically, all over,” Mujaddedi said Monday. “Afghanistan moved 20 years to the past.”

Officials at AUAF, which was established with U.S. development funding in 2006 in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan as the country’s first and only private, secular, coed nonprofit institution, did not respond to messages on Monday. The university’s website was down, and its Twitter and Facebook accounts appeared to have been deleted.

Over the years, AUAF has received more than $100 million in U.S. development funding. In 2016, a militant attack on the campus killed 15 people and injured dozens more. That same year, two AUAF professors were kidnapped by the Taliban; a deal was reached to release them in 2019.

The New York Times reported Sunday on a briefing between State Department officials and members of Congress during which the briefers included AUAF students on a list of groups of people they would try to help leave the country.

President Biden said in remarks Monday that he had authorized 6,000 U.S. troops "for the purpose of assisting in the departure of U.S. and allied civilian personnel from Afghanistan, and to evacuate our Afghan allies and vulnerable Afghans to safety outside of Afghanistan."

Reached on Friday prior to the collapse of the Afghan government, Leslie Schweitzer, a member of AUAF’s Board of Trustees and president of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization Friends of the American University of Afghanistan, said the university was in the process of arranging partnerships with other universities in the region from which students could study remotely.

Schweitzer worried that AUAF students and staff were especially vulnerable.

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“Just the American University of Afghanistan, the mere name -- I’m very worried about our national staff who are the core of what we are able to do in Afghanistan,” she said Friday. “There have been more and more nationals that have become adjunct professors as they continue to receive education in Afghanistan, and Ph.D.s around the world, they’re coming back. I would have had a very different conversation three or four days ago, before the Taliban moved so rapidly and before we were feeling that Kabul was threatened.”

The rapid takeover by the Taliban raised particular fears about women’s rights, which were severely curtailed during the Taliban’s previous five-year rule of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The Taliban forbade almost all education for women and girls during its reign.

“Now the Taliban have seized control of Kabul, a new reign of terror for people living in Afghanistan has begun,” the European Parliament said in a news release Monday. “For Afghan women and girls, this means systemic and brutal oppression in all aspects of life. In Taliban-controlled areas, women's universities have been closed, they are denying girls access to education, and women are sold as sex slaves.”

A female student who expected to earn degrees from AUAF and Kabul University in November wrote in The Guardian that she was heading to university for class Sunday morning when she learned from a group of women leaving the dormitory that the Taliban had arrived in Kabul. “Meanwhile, the men standing around were making fun of girls and women, laughing at our terror,” wrote the student, who is not identified by name. “‘Go and put on your chadari [burqa],’ one called out. ‘It is your last days of being out on the streets,’ said another. ‘I will marry four of you in one day,’ said a third.”

The student wrote that when she and her sisters arrived home, the first thing they did was hide their IDs, their diplomas and certificates.

“Now it looks like I have to burn everything I achieved in 24 years of my life. Having any ID card or awards from the American University is risky now; even if we keep them, we are not able to use them. There are no jobs for us in Afghanistan.”

Victoria Fontan, vice president of academic affairs at AUAF, spoke to FranceInfo about evacuation efforts.

"We burned the university's servers, all the documents we were able to take before leaving, such as the lists of professors, students," Fontan told the publication (translated from French). "We especially do not want to leave information on the people who were able to help us."

Fontan said the situation was heartbreaking.

“Yesterday evening, I went to join my students in Kabul for the evening … The students are very afraid that they will be abandoned, every time they see someone leaving with suitcases, they ask: ‘Will there be room for everyone? Are you going to leave us?’”

International media outlets have reported on chaos and panic at the Kabul airport as people try to flee the country.

Robert Quinn, executive director of Scholars at Risk, an organization that helps secure international placements for scholars who are threatened in their home countries, said there is an urgent need to "press the U.S. government and through them the international community to keep the evacuation window open as long as possible."

"The bottom line is the evacuation should not be over when the foreign nationals have left," Quinn said. "There are all the other populations that we know about, including scholars and civil society actors who were asked to buy in to this vision of a rights-respecting, knowledge-based, forward-looking Afghanistan, and that’s the only reason they’re going to be targeted."

Quinn said dozens of universities in the U.S. have already committed to create positions for Afghan scholars. "On the candidate side, we already have 60 formal applications in the last couple of weeks, and we’ve got a couple of hundreds of names of people that could be worthy of support," he said. "I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg."

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Elizabeth Redden

Elizabeth Redden, Senior Reporter, covers general higher education topics, religion and higher education, and international higher education for Inside Higher Ed. She has more than a decade of experience as an education journalist. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

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