The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. dare not betray the students at the American University of Afghanistan

A high blast wall surrounds the American University in Kabul in 2020. (Lorenzo Tugnoli/FTWP)
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President Biden is sticking to the Aug. 31 deadline for removing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, which means that time is rapidly running out for those desperate to escape Taliban rule. As news of Biden’s decision broke on Tuesday, hundreds of young women with a special U.S. affiliation were in hiding across Kabul, waiting for news regarding when, or if, their chance at evacuation will come.

They are students at the American University of Afghanistan — though by now they have destroyed documents that identify them as such for fear of discovery by the Taliban. Among all those people that U.S. officials label “vulnerable Afghans,” these AUAF women are some of the most endangered, according to sources familiar with their current situation.

The Taliban has been violently mistreating women at checkpoints and, sometimes, circulating after dark in captured U.S. night-vision goggles, marking houses of suspected opponents with spray paint. Also, the Taliban on Tuesday repeated its demand that the United States stop encouraging Afghans to exit. Thus, the sources declined to provide more detail on who, and where, the students are.

What is clear, though, is that any U.S. rescue operation that leaves behind these students — and, indeed, their male colleagues — will cap what is already an American defeat in Afghanistan with an especially poignant disgrace.

Then-first lady Laura Bush presided over the opening of AUAF in 2006. Developed with $100 million in U.S. aid, it grew into Afghanistan’s only independent, private, not for profit, nonsectarian, coeducational institution of higher education. It epitomized the U.S. effort to equip future Afghan leaders, men and women, with skills beneficial to their country’s development.

Those who studied and taught law, engineering, computer science and other subjects there, as well as the support staff, put their faith in the United States — both its ostensible power and its professed principles.

The Taliban targeted the AUAF accordingly. On Aug. 24, 2016 — five years ago Tuesday — terrorists wielding guns and explosives carried out a 10-hour raid on the campus. The attackers killed 15 people, including seven students. Earlier that same month, two of the school’s English instructors, one each from the United States and Australia, had been taken hostage; their release, in exchange for senior Taliban leaders, did not come until 2019.

There has been a lot of talk, undoubtedly accurate in some cases, about the deposed Afghan political and military elite’s fecklessness and lack of will. The AUAF, though, was made of pretty stern stuff. It rebuilt from the 2016 disaster and reopened on March 27, 2017.

About a week ago, Taliban fighters occupied it, unopposed. The entire campus — blast-proof walls, classrooms, laboratories, manicured green quad — fell into their hands. Any equipment that had not yet been looted, they added to the weapons and armored vehicles, also provided by U.S. taxpayers, Taliban fighters had previously captured as spoils of war.

Understandably, and fortunately, given the history, the university community had already fled. As Victoria Fontan, the institution’s French-born vice president of academic affairs, told FranceInfo, a Paris-based radio network, officials scrapped the school’s website and “burned the university’s servers [and] all the documents we were able to take before leaving, such as the lists of professors, students.”

Fontan, who is now in France, told of her own harrowing escape, protected by burly security guards from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Her country’s embassy refused her request to grant her students asylum. “The students are very afraid they will be abandoned,” she told FranceInfo.

That was on Aug. 15. Since then, of the 1,200-person AUAF community — local staff, faculty and students, 45 percent of the last group being women — perhaps 50 have been able to get out, according to Leslie Schweitzer, president of Friends of the American University of Afghanistan, a U.S. nonprofit. Students who did escape are being housed in Doha, Qatar, and Schweitzer says the school is making plans to continue operating online and from various satellite locations beyond Kabul.

You can’t have a university without students, of course. What the remaining AUAF community and other potential evacuees in Kabul most need now, according to Kelley DeConciliis, a U.S.-based exfiltration security expert, is for “the U.S. military to clear a gate entrance [to the Kabul airport] without Taliban stationed there, to allow safe passage.” How that could happen now that the Taliban has announced a blockade on Afghans moving to the airport is unclear.

The United States is treating itself to political arguments over what went wrong in Afghanistan, with the president leading the condemnation of “nation-building,” and citing its inevitable failure as a reason to liquidate our 20-year investment.

AUAF’s story reminds us that, however misconceived or mismanaged U.S. efforts in Afghanistan might have been, there were bright spots, and that, in any case, real people — flesh-and-blood human beings — staked their lives on this country’s promises. We dare not betray them now.