KABUL — In late March, students at the American University of Afghanistan returned to a new main campus — fortified by 19-foot-high concrete walls — after a devastating terrorist attack last year that left 15 dead, including seven students.
In the political recrimination that followed, the Taliban issued a new threat targeting the safety of their Western hostages — including two professors taken at gunpoint outside the school last August. The university administration again called for their safe release.
Teachers and students say they are determined to carry on despite the threats to the college, founded in 2006 to provide an American-style liberal arts education to Afghans. The school is heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, with the U.S. government funding 70 percent of its costs — just over $20 million this year.
“We haven’t closed, we haven’t stopped educating,” said David S. Sedney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia who spent nine months as acting president of the school and revamped its security. “But we do watch things very carefully. But right now on balance, it’s the right thing to do to continue operations.”
The school’s rebirth comes at a time when the security situation in Afghanistan is worsening, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis telling a Senate committee this week that the enemy is “surging” and that the United States is “not winning in Afghanistan right now.” Fresh troops may arrive, but the Trump Administration is also proposing steep cuts to international aid.
The school had 50 students when it opened more than a decade ago, an Afghan-chartered institution funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank and others. Former first lady Laura Bush was a staunch supporter early on and has remained so, Sedney said.
By 2011, the college had its first graduating class of more than 100 students and now awards undergraduate degrees in a variety of fields as well as a master’s in business administration.
The school’s old campus, built on the grounds of a shuttered international school, became an “oasis” of learning in a war-torn country where male and female students mingled freely — unusual in a deeply conservative Muslim society — in classrooms led by Americans and international teachers.
As its prestige grew, the university attracted other, unwanted attention — from the Taliban. In a report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network published shortly after the August attack, analyst Borhan Osman wrote that the Taliban had long written about the school in its literature in books and online, portraying it as “a key center of U.S. efforts to stop the emergence of an Islamic government in Afghanistan.” The militants called the school “Kabul’s Christian University” and said it promoted moral corruption through co-ed classes.
The terrorists first struck on Aug. 7, 2016, abducting the two professors from their car just outside the school. The men — American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — later appeared, gaunt and tearful, in a hostage video. Officials say they are being held with other Westerners by the violent Haqqani wing of the Taliban.
Then, on Aug. 24, suicide attackers detonated a car bomb outside the university wall, entered the campus and hunted down and shot fleeing student and teachers, as others barricaded themselves in classrooms. After a 10-hour siege, 15 people — seven students, a professor, four guards and three police officers — lay dead.
In the aftermath of the attack, university administrators were criticized by some faculty members and relatives of the victims for not taking threats to the school more seriously.
Barry Salaam, a journalist and civil society activist whose nephew died in the attack, said that the school should have dismissed classes and taken other measures after the two teachers were kidnapped. Even now, he worries the campus is not safe.
“Be careful, because they’re going to come back after you,” Salaam said. “It’s a big target, not just for the name but for the quality it brings and the vision it creates and the generation it trains.”
The school opened its doors again on March 25, on a new 55-acre main campus across the street, with dorms for faculty and female students, and a grass quadrangle where students gather to play soccer and volleyball. A cafeteria is to open soon. The concrete walls, fortified gates and a private security contractor were funded by an additional $18 million USAID grant.
“We’re under no illusion any number of security upgrades are going to bring the risk down to zero,” said Ahmad Shuja, the school’s director of development. “But the university is rebuilding and becoming whole again.”
The school lost about 10 percent of the teachers who had been evacuated after last year’s attack, but most of the faculty, students and support staff returned. Its new president, Kenneth Holland, a former professor at Ball State University, started June 8.
Samiullah Sharifi, a law student who is the student body president, said that the reopening of the place many students consider a second home has been bittersweet and that there were many debates in the hallways about whether the campus was now secure.
During the attack, he had just left a class for prayer break when a gunman burst in and shot his professor. Sharifi got away through an emergency gate.
After the Afghan government blamed the Haqqani network for last month’s bombing, the Taliban issued a terse threat online about its “foreign prisoners” — prompting the school to again appeal for the professors’ release.
“In one attack we’re safe and in another we’re not,” Sharifi said. “We have accepted this as the reality of our lives.”