Education as strategy in Afghanistan

Education as strategy in Afghanistan

By Chris Taylor

Best Defense guest columnist

After eleven years of combat that ultimately will culminate with a troop withdrawal in 2014, Afghanistan is neither settled nor solved. Long-term success in the region demands more nuanced approaches and gives cause to reimagine not a legacy, but a new engagement with smart investment in other levers of influence.

Eminent Harvard professor Joe Nye, who coined the phrase "soft power," recently said, "soft power is the ability to get outcomes through attraction rather than through force or payment, and education has always been an important resource to achieve that."

Education has already proven to be a powerful attraction in Kabul. Enrollment at the American University of Afghanistan rose from 56 students in 2006 to 1,800 in 2012, and continues to grow. Founded in 2004 by Afghan business and civic leaders, and modeled after the successful American Universities of Beirut and Cairo, the AUAF is a non-sectarian, co-educational institution with undergraduate, graduate, and professional development curricula.

In May 2011, the AUAF graduated its first class of 32; nine women and 23 men with two Fulbright Scholarships awarded. In 2012, 52 graduated with six more Fulbright Scholars named.

The university attracts Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Nuristanis, Turkmen, Aimaks, and many others. In doing so, it creates an intercultural environment where young Afghan minds interact, leveraging many tribal narratives into one sense of Afghan unity and progress.

But by far, the fastest growing demographic at AUAF is women. With an average enrollment of 25 percent in undergraduate and professional development curricula (11 percent in the newly minted MBA curriculum), Afghan women are defying archaic norms and risking their lives to educate themselves so they can lead in their communities, in business, and in the national government. These are the same women who have been disfigured by acid attacks and mutilation, raped by relatives, married against their will, and received death threats from the Taliban — yet they still come to the AUAF because they believe they can change their future, and that of their nation.

AUAF graduate Wasima Muhammadi said, "I want to be a deputy in the Ministry of Finance, because currently I do not see enough women participation in the government. I think that a mixture of both male and female leaders in this country would have a positive impact on the progress of Afghanistan." 

In a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, General John Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, testified that, "Throughout history, insurgencies have seldom been defeated by foreign forces, instead, they have been ultimately beaten by indigenous forces."

The case, then, is made: an educated citizenry can redefine its country’s narrative, drive change from within, and break free from tyranny.

Sound familiar?

While education is a strong soft power tool, it affects national security, too. Afghanistan’s low literacy rate poses significant challenges to strategic training programs for its army, police forces, and government agencies, potentially impairing its ability to fully take responsibility for its own security in 2014.

Initially funded by a grant from USAID with support from first lady Laura Bush, AUAF has grown substantially beyond that support. The university has an aggressive campaign to raise $80 million over five years — a fraction of the $108 billion budgeted for operations in Afghanistan in 2012.

It seems education is quite the deal these days.

Contractors have made substantial profits in Afghanistan. The Federal Procurement Data System lists over $50 billion in contracts for companies who have supported combat and stabilization operations. Imputing an estimated profit of 10 percent leaves $5 billion — a small amount of which CEOs should invest in the education of some of the tens of thousands of Afghans they employ. As the CEO of my former company, I instituted an AUAF scholarship program for top performing Afghan employees, or children of Afghan employees killed while serving the company and the military. Today, six bright students, three of whom are women, are studying accounting and finance, public administration, and information technology on these funds.

The wealthy Afghan diaspora should be first in line to support the AUAF’s mission. Many have benefited from Western education, and sharing their experiences and financial assistance would give others still trapped by war and extremism a view to a better future.

As the United States now weighs its strategic options, investing in the American University of Afghanistan makes sense. The extremist narrative lures disenchanted youth every day, but that’s because there is not a stronger, positive message for them to embrace. Without funding for education, young Afghans will flee the country in search of other opportunities; most never to return — or worse, stay home and simply endure whatever may come. That need not be so.

A commitment to the American University of Afghanistan brings with it a new generation of Afghan leaders who will catapult forward fresh ideas that counter extremism, reject corruption, and embrace equality for women, all while creating necessary long-term regional relationships and giving voice to young Afghans who are the future of their country and dedicated to a moderate and free society.

We should make that commitment today.

Chris Taylor is a member of the Board of Trustees at the American University of Afghanistan and the Chairman and CEO of Novitas Group. He is a former enlisted infantryman and Force Recon Marine. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Atlantic Council, he holds an MBA from the College of William & Mary and an MPA in political economy and international security from the Harvard Kennedy School, where he co-authored, "Transforming the National Security Culture" for the Defense Leadership Project at Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership.