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
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.
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
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.
American University of Afghanistan