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What remains of the American University of Afghanistan?


One year ago this month, the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. Many people fled into exile, and so did an entire university. The American University of Afghanistan was a U.S.-backed institution. Our colleague Steve Inskeep reports on its fate.


We drove past the campus in Kabul but didn't see much. Concrete blast walls surround it. The Taliban attacked that campus in years past and now control it. Faculty and students have scattered, yet the university says it remains open and is developing a new campus in Qatar. The university asked us not to meet students who are still in Kabul, saying attention might cause them trouble. But we did reach the university president, who's in Istanbul. Ian Bickford told us how the faculty and students evacuated one year ago.

IAN BICKFORD: We spent the last two days on campus trying to remove any student records and employee records from the campus, and that included destroying files and hard drives. My colleagues and I and some of the students who remained in the last day stood around a bonfire that was made of our campus records. And, you know, it was - that was the moment of goodbye. There was nothing about it that I can describe in positive terms. But, you know, looking at their faces, looking into their eyes, we knew that we'd done something really important in Afghanistan, and we would continue to do it in whatever way that we can find to do long into the future.

INSKEEP: Do you assume that the university will never return to that campus?

BICKFORD: I cannot and will not assume that.

INSKEEP: Where are your students now?

BICKFORD: They're in roughly 20 countries. More than half of our students who were enrolled at the time that we closed our campus have left the country. More will leave to join us in Qatar. We anticipate that once the campus in Qatar is operational, all of the women who were enrolled at AUAF last spring will have left Afghanistan and, very hopefully, most or all of the men as well. Others are living and studying independently online in various other countries, and more than 50 of our students now are in the U.S., with the largest number in residence at Bard College in New York.

INSKEEP: Is it strange to have a university that - like, the campus is gone, that there is no center?

BICKFORD: Is it strange? You know, the experience of the pandemic has not only taught us a lot about the potential of online education but also has led us to ask new and, I think, innovative and sometimes even exciting questions about how digital technology can keep a community together when you cannot be together physically and in person.

INSKEEP: What is happening with students in Afghanistan?

BICKFORD: Yeah. The vast majority of young Afghan students who both want and need an education continue to live in Afghanistan, and so it's important for the university to continue to provide that opportunity. So as we're relocating students around the world, we're also continuing to teach online within the borders of Afghanistan. And we anticipate 300 new students, 200 of them women, to join us in the fall to begin their first year of university study online.

INSKEEP: Two-thirds of the in-country students are women, then.

BICKFORD: That's right. That's right.

INSKEEP: What is the current status of the campus? What is the government intending to do with it? And what do you think about their intentions?

BICKFORD: Our best understanding is that what we call our international campus, which is a new, high-tech, state-of-the-art campus and the larger of our two campuses, has been well-maintained, carefully maintained and kept secure but that no activities have taken place there. We don't know what the intention for it is. And we still believe that we have the legal right to that campus in Afghanistan under any interpretation of prevailing law. All I can say, really, is that the use of either campus should be toward the betterment of Afghan young people and equal opportunity for women. Any use of either campus that betrays either of those principles is a misuse.

INSKEEP: Ian Bickford is president of the American University of Afghanistan, which continues classes this fall, wherever in the world that an enrolled student has access to a screen.

MARTINEZ: Our colleague Steve Inskeep is part of an NPR team reporting on who's included in the Taliban's Afghanistan. For more of our coverage, just go to Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.