Afghan Diary: The American University of Afghanistan and Me


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February 13, 2023

Afghan Diary: The American University of Afghanistan and Me

  • Afghan Diary
  • afghanistan
  • American University of Afghanistan
  • Education
  • taliban

I have just signed a contract with the American University of Afghanistan as a University Professor. Last semester, I started working there as a visiting lecturer. Here’s the start of my ongoing reflections on this surprising turn of events, an introduction to a series of excerpts from my diary. Jeff

Photo: Carol Mitchell

November 2022

Until recently, Afghanistan has been a remote place on my mental map. Focused as I have been on the East and Central Europe before and after 1989, I understood that the end of the Soviet empire was over-determined, including the overextension of Soviet imperial ambitions in Afghanistan, but also the more global American-Soviet competition, the economic illogic of the previously existing socialist system, and, my primary concern, the development of democratic civic opposition from within the empire. When it came to the political transformation that my work anticipated, the struggle in Afghanistan was apparently a side issue.

And then there was 9/11: the terrorist attacks of 2001, emanating from al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, touched me personally: one of my dearest friends, Mike Asher, was killed in the World Trade Center. Another, Steve Assael, managed to escape. Nonetheless, I had a hard time supporting the notion of a “war on terrorism.” Its Orwellian echoes were quite clear: the nebulous enemy, a never-ending, ever-expanding war, the proliferation of newspeak, the Manichean calculations. A global war on terrorism didn’t make any sense. Perhaps it did as a metaphor, such as “the wars on drugs” and “the war on poverty”, as Michael Walzer then argued, but the actual war promised misery wherever it would be fought, as has proved to be the case, and the arrogance of nation building has been a part of this.

Further, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, amid a broad consensus in the United States for retribution, I realized that I have little taste for it. Calls to punish Afghanistan did not move me. I supported the attacks in Afghanistan targeting Al Qaeda, but a broader war with broader goals concerned me – the broader, the more concerning. 

And once the war was declared, I was doubtful about even softer forms of intervention. I had a colleague and a cousin who became involved in Afghanistan: Andrew Arato was invited to give advice on constitutional reforms (he ultimately turned down the invitation), on the other hand, Ronni Goldfarb worked for years on an NGO supporting the education of women. But I doubted the likely success of a democratic legal order and a liberal civil order with gender justice tightly predicated upon outside military intervention and hegemony. I didn’t prejudge failure. I even rooted for success, but the top-down strategy troubled me.

Yet, I now find myself involved. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I am teaching at the American University of Afghanistan in exile.

The problematic American intervention into Afghan affairs did have positive consequences, even as it was plagued by profound problems, best revealed in the rapid fall of Kabul to the Taliban. The positives included: the inclusion of women into public life, the development of a relatively free press and elections, advances in the rule of law, and the expansion of educational opportunities for girls and women, boys and men, from grade school to higher education, including the establishment of the American University. 

I am becoming engaged, primarily online, in the matter of higher education, specifically the liberal arts mission of the university. I’m in, as the author of Reinventing Political Culture, The Politics of Small Things, Civility and Subversion, The Persistence of Freedom, the founder and former publisher of Public Seminar, and the founder and organizer of “The Democracy Seminar.” I will be teaching courses and working with the administration, faculty, and students, as they are responding to their very difficult circumstances, with most of the administration and faculty in exile, while many of the students are still in the country.

The Story of My Involvement

As the tide of the war was turning decisively in the Taliban’s favor, my friend and colleague, the man who granted me tenure at the New School for Social Research, Jonathan Fanton, introduced me to the President of the American University in Afghanistan, Ian Bickford. Given my work with Jonathan in the past, including working with the underground democratic opposition in Central Europe before the transformations of 1989, and fostering regional and then transregional discussions and collaboration on the topic of democracy after 1989, as well as our working together on the liberal arts at the New School (I was briefly his Associate Provost for the Liberal Arts), Jonathan thought that Ian and I should meet. 

We met first through Zoom with Ian in his office in Kabul and me sitting in my study at home in Irvington, New York, a few weeks before the sweep of the Taliban forces into Kabul. They were then accumulating victories throughout the countryside circling in on the cities, including Kabul. I remember my astonishment at Ian’s calm. He was in the eye of a political hurricane, with chaos surrounding him. I was also struck by his commitment to the university’s students and professors, and by his deep appreciation of the mission of the university and to liberal arts ideals. I recognized that he was committed to ideals that were my own and was deeply impressed by how he was acting upon them in extremely dangerous circumstances. 

Yet, he assured me that he and his colleagues were safe. 

We arranged a meeting between several professors at the university and participants of the Democracy Seminar, which sponsored the webinar “What the media is not telling you about the situation in Afghanistan.” A few weeks later the group had a follow up webinar in and on the aftermath of the Taliban victory.

Both webinars were illuminating. In retrospect, the group seemed to be less insightful about the balances of forces on the ground, more insightful about the variety and qualities of the forces. Although, along with many other observers, they didn’t anticipate the rapid fall of Kabul, the faculty and staff knew who the key players were in their complexity. They reported on the possible support of the Afghan army by local militias. They knew about and represented the range of political opinions in the cities and the countryside. They talked about the enduring changes in Afghan society over the last twenty years, centering on the impact of education far and wide. They disagreed about how to respond to the Taliban, and their positions in Afghan society and its history were different. I had a hard time discerning, and still am having a hard time, where they stand on the Afghan political map, probably because they have no single stance, apart from their opposition to the present regime, and even that, they articulate differently. 

After the Taliban victory, many of AUAF faculty and staff, along with their students, sought emergency evacuation at the airport. Many of the students were tragically turned back by the American authorities, after at first clearing them. The faculty and students are now dispersed. The administration and some faculty and students are now based in Doha, Qatar. Faculty and groups of students are also in Iraq, Kyrgyzstan and just north of my home in the Hudson Valley of New York, at Bard College. Others are scattered around the globe.

As I have come to know them, the administrators and professors clearly revealed that they are my colleagues, as was first apparent in my conversations with Ian. My work with them ever since has confirmed my first impression. I could imagine any one of them as an office neighbor at the New School. Among them are a Milton scholar, a law professor, a promising political theorist, and an expert in peace and development studies, as well as a distinguished scholar of the long history and cultural accomplishments of the people of Afghanistan. And as I have come to know them, and their colleagues and students, I realize that we are engaged in a similar, indeed perhaps I can say universal, project of education and intellectual inquiry. They embody and enact the ideals of “the university.”

One thing has led to another, and I am now teaching a course at the AUAF on civic engagement and the politics of small things as a visiting instructor, and will become involved full time, as a University Professor in January 2023. As I have become more and more involved, I realize the uniqueness of this, and with the urging of my close friend and colleague, Daniel Dayan, I am starting this diary to document my engagement.


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