Letter from Kabul
Letter from Kabul: Why India can be a great role model for Afghanistan
Even as Kabul confronts an uncertain future, the president of the American University in Afghanistan, Dr Kenneth Holland, hopes that Afghanistan can learn from India the great benefits of people living together peacefully.
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'University' is a word derived from an ancient Latin phrase that means a 'community of teachers and scholars'.
Dr Kenneth Holland, president of the American University in Afghanistan (AUAF), has long lamented the fact that he has, up until now, presided over an institution that could educate only members of the indigenous population and was thus unable to afford them the chance to meet with students from other countries.
“That's deprived the students of a real learning opportunity because ordinarily, one of the great benefits of going to university is you get to meet students from all over the world and you get to learn from them and to develop friendships that might lead to opportunities in the future,” Dr Holland explains.
He is therefore delighted that is about to change this year after his university signed a memorandum of understanding with the prestigious OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, Haryana, India. “Students from India will for the first time be coming here to study and a group of Afghan students will, in turn, be going there, so there will be a true exchange of students. It is a tremendously exciting step forward for us.”
AUAF will soon be sending Afghan students to learn in India and experience life abroad. (Photo: AUAF)
Heroes in Afghanistan are as likely to wear suits, surgical scrubs or academic gowns as army uniforms, and Dr Holland – whose impressive academic career began with a PhD from the University of Chicago – is undoubtedly one of them.
A man of great charm and quiet determination, Dr Holland has worked in great centers of learning around the world, but the particular challenge of offering the best possible education to the young of Afghanistan proved irresistible to him.
He took up the post as president of the American University in Kabul in June 2017, but his work in the country began 13 years ago, assisting at 11 public universities, including Balkh University, Kandahar University and Shaikh Zayed (Khost) University. He has worked at Kabul’s National Institute for Management and Administration too. At the AUAF, he is helped by his indefatigable wife, Julie, who is the university's Registrar.
“What impressed me from the start about the young of Afghanistan is how eager they are for education and how much they value the opportunity to get an American-style education and to improve themselves and also to build their country as they share a great sense of patriotism,” he says. “They are a breath of fresh air for me because I have, of course, spent most of my life teaching in my own country where students all too often don’t realise how lucky they are.
“When I travel around Afghanistan, I see many children who are not in school, and this makes me sad, because, when they are as young as six years old and they are already having to work to support their families and not going to school, that means they are probably going to be poor for their whole lives and they won’t realise their potential.”
Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he was considering pulling half of US' troops out of Afghanistan surprised Dr Holland as much as anyone, and of course, it puts a question mark over a lot of the work of the AUAF and its initiative with India.
Dr Holland is not, however, a man who panics easily.
“Let’s put this into perspective and go back to President Trump’s speech in August of 2017 in which he announced the South Asia Policy and said he would leave decisions about troop levels to the generals on the ground.
Dr Kenneth Holland, president of the American University in Afghanistan, says the international community must maintain a presence in Afghanistan. (Photo: Mohammad Anil Qasemi)
“In terms of Afghanistan, he said he would be asking India to play a much bigger role in the development of the country. As for his more recent comments, I am reassured that his generals here have said that they have received no order to cut down numbers. So that tells me that the final decision has not been made and I am hopeful that the President will be consistent and will continue to follow his South Asia Policy.”
Dr Holland was working in higher education in Iraq when America began to pull its troops out from there after ending its combat mission. He saw how that resulted in an end to so many of the international initiatives he had been involved with.
He is under no illusions that a significant American military withdrawal from Afghanistan would make the position of NATO countries involved in helping the country pretty much untenable and set the country back many years.
“The future of Afghanistan depends on assistance from the international community. More than 40 countries are currently involved in this endeavour and India is, of course, one of the most important ones. At Geneva in Switzerland, a lot of their representatives met recently and pledged additional assistance which now runs into billions of dollars so there is no doubt about the international will to help the Afghan people achieve their goals.”
One country that Dr Holland hopes will play a key role in the current peace negotiations that America has initiated is Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour, Pakistan. “If Pakistan provides safe heavens to the insurgents, it will be impossible to defeat them, so my hope is that Pakistan will play a leading role in the peace negotiations and will provide incentives to the Taliban to come to the negotiating table.”
Friends forever: India has proved to be a key player in the mission to rebuild Afghanistan. (Photo: Reuters)
I ask Dr Holland what his best hope for Afghanistan is – and his worst fear.
"My worst fear is that the insurgency will continue and the security situation will deteriorate even further and that it will make it impossible for civilians like myself to work here and to assist the Afghan people. That, I think, would be a tragedy for a generation coming up that yearns only for peace and it would snuff out so many hopes and dreams."
“As for my best hope, it is that there will be a successful outcome to the current peace and reconciliation process and that the members of the Taliban will lay down their arms. More than that, I would love to see the Taliban assisting the Afghan National Security Forces in defeating the anti-state
“The country has seen enough bloodshed now and it deserves peace. Only then can it focus on improving the lives of its people with better health care, greater opportunities in particular for its women and of course a better education for all, which is the key to making Afghanistan a leading player in the community of nations once again."
He adds, "I see India as a great role model for Afghanistan – it shows what can be done when people live together peacefully.”