Together with today's international Women's day, NGOs and governments have highlighted the lack of access to education in many countries, Afghanistan included. My paper in ther Berlin Die Tageszeitung this week looks at the pace at which private universities in Afghanistan are mushrooming. While public universities in Kabul and in the provinces face serious allegations of corruption, the private academic sphere is subject to a competition in which politics partly mix with swift economical interests or gains rather than with a long time investment for the new generation.
Niamatullah Ibrahimi, researcher, founder and co-director of AfghanistanWatch, has had a look at the private Afghan universities recently in the national context. I interviewed him on the subject:
- In how far is the universitarian system in crisis ?
There is a pressure on the higher education sector. For the first time in Afghan history we see a massive extension of primary and secondary education. Which means pupils are graduating and are applying for university seats. Directly after the fall of the Taliban in 2002, we had about 7.000 students in six universities across the whole country. Now, in 2014, we have about 250.000 students both in public and private universities. And the state system can only absorb a part of it.
We have 76 private institutes of higher education by now. All of them with about 50.000 students, and with 4.000 teachers employed in this rapidly expanding sector. And because the public sector cannot meet this expansion, the private sector is both needed and also encouraged by the state to shoulder some of the responsabilities that the public system cannot accomplish.
// - Are lecturers teaching at the universities of a B.A or a M.A. Level in general?
The Afghan regulation for the sector of private education, is in principle setting very high standards. For example, lecturers at the higher private universities should at least have a master degrees. But the question is, whether these criteria can be enforced. The sudden mushrooming of private universities in Kabul and other cities needs monitoring. But the department for private education with the ministry of higher education, which is responsible for the oversight and registration of the private sector, has only a 17 persons staff for all the 76 private universities, 50.000 students and 4.000 teachers. This staff alone is assigned to do the registration of new universities, follow the migration of students from one university to the other and issue a lot of certification and documents – an incredible huge task for a small department with this number of people.
// - Everything is political in Afghanistan. What interest groups do we see?
One important risk for the future of the higher education sector is that the private institutes might become an extension of religiuos and political patronage networks. Politically and religiously influential figures see it as a very easy way of extending their support for the educated class to benefit them. You open a university and you attract people. And you try to promote your particular form or lines of political or religious ideology and thinking. This is of course not very healthy for the future of the country. Because the students are exposed to one line of thinking at one institute rather than being exposed to critical or alternative thinking within and outside of the university.
This can perpetuate the old religious and ideological divides among the emerging educated class. And it can lead to new fragmentation among them.
// - Some of the private universities are said to be under the influence of new businessmen?
Yes. They are people who have invested in higher education for political reasons. Others have invested in universities out of commercial interests. Businessmen or commercial landlords. Modern businessmen invest in higher education to make money. Some of the investors don't follow a long time horizon or strategy. They invest as if they open a shop. They look for benefits within six months or a bit more. Get a benefit after each semester, or you have lost. This expectation may mean to undermine the ability of a long term planing and of an insitute being able to grow over a period of many years.
// -What land- or warlords and Taliban figures are engaged in the private higher education ?
There is an interesting group of people who have opened institutes of higher learning. Former Taliban also, inluding Mullah Wakil Muttawakil, the former foreign minister, and Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan. They have opened the Salam private institute of higher education in Kabul.
// - How does the curriculum look in such an institute?
The new thing about it is that they have admitted a significant number of female students. This is happening on their own conditions. Women are behind the burka, there is no interaction between male and female students. I have my concerns on this. I am – in general – concerned about the radicalization of the youth.
// - Why is there a demand from females for an institute of former Taliban?
Certain conserative families of course would like to get their daughters to get educated. And they cannot or do not want to send them to institutes where boys and girls would sit in the same class.
Which is not new on the other hand. We have had co-education in an open form in the sixties.
It has been happening then, and is happening now again. But there was an interval of course. The Taliban tried to separate classes based on gender. But now, after 2001 and the international community, we are able to have it again.
// - Other figures suggest a brain drain of the scholarshipers abroad though?
Yes, there is a significant brain drain happening, unfortunately. I am talking of Afghan professionals. But the same is happening with educated persons and students who are leaving. Be it because they have current problems or are afraid of the situation to come after 2014. There is people who simply pay smugglers to get out of Afghanistan. At the same time, in comparison to 2001/2002, Afghanistan has a much larger educated class, and an expanding one. Despite the fact that we are loosing some very capable brains at a very crucial time for Afghanistan, I think that we are witnessing the rise of a much larger new educated class. We have about 5.000 young people studying in India at the moment. Another 15.000 study in other countries, starting with Pakistan and Iran, but also Europe and the Western countries. Returning or not after a scholarship is a big issue. But even if some stay away, they are being replaced by people who are graduating now in the Afghan universities in a growing number.
// - How serious is the risk of a middle class of educated people leaving with 2014?
The risk is there, but not because of what ou mean. I am concerned about the problems of the middle class for other reasons. The kind of progressive middle class that has emerged is directly or directly linked with the military or civilian international aid. At the same time, it has not sufficient links with the economy of Afghanistan. A am speaking of a middle class that earns its own living through the national economy. This is I think the bigger threat to the Afghan the educated class than some people leaving the country.
// - What ist the western role in this ?
I think western countries have ignored the reconstruction of the Afghan economy. The western countries have spend a lot of money on state building and infrastructure projects. But the revival of the Afghan economy, in particular the agricultural and industrial sectors, have been largely forgotten. What you have now are economic bubbles that have emerged around the military or civilian foreign presence, both of them having no links with the traditional Afghan economy.
How will they earn their money? If the international military or civil institutions leave the country, they will loose their source of income. So here we have a crisis.
// - Does this make the bed of extremists?
I am afraid that an economical shock is likely to happen. It can significantly contribute to a detrioration of the security situation. If there would be a sudden collapse of the Afgan economy, for instance with a lot of people loosing their jobs, the Afghan government not capable of paying its expenses, prices going up and the Afghan government unable to maintain the stability of its currency – all of this can have a very destabilizing effect. Or look in the provinces: The PRTs (provincial reconstruction teams) were such an important economic pilar in many provinces. Now you see them suddenly closing, together with their funds for reconstructoin of stabilization for the regions. This means a sudden rise in unemployment. Many of the political groups that have taken a profit with it suddenly have nothing to do.
Hamid Karzai – western media speculate - does not want to be remembered as a kind of modern Shah Shuja in the records of history books. Being compared to the king who owed his throne to the dramatically failed intervention of the British Empire 170 years ago would be tantamount to treason in the eyes of his own people.
The first Anglo-Afghan war, historians agree, has left behind a good range of documents in British, Indian, Pakistani and Afghan Archives. Some of them are incorporated in the dari-speaking literature. But rarely so far have western authors attempted to systematically evaluate Afghan sources of the time, following to William Dalrymple. In his voluminous tome of 500 pages the author, whose ancestors fought in the Anglo-Afghan war, tells the story of the return of Shah Shuja on the Afghan throne and the battle of the British crown and the East India Company for Afghanistan.
Dalrymple draws differences and parallels with today's war and conflict, naming the intervention of 2001 as it developed itself an "occupation of the 21st Century”. Than as now in fact, political geography accompanied by short-lived military strategies have been put in place and failed strikingly. The same goes for the ignorance and absence of knowledge about Afghanistan's tribes, their reasons and motivations to take up arms.
// “The parallels”, Dalrymple writes, “are not just anecdotal, they aer substantive. The same battles were continuing to be fought out in the same place 170 years later under the guis of new flags, new ideologies and new political puppeteers. The same cities were garrisoned by foreign troops speaking the same languages, and were being attacked from the same rings of hills and the same high passes.”
The book turns around the relationship of Shah Shuja and William Macnahghten, the commander of the British troops and representative of the East India Company. Analogies between Hamid Karzai and the military leadership of ISAF do not seem accidental. At some point in the military campaign, Shuja is provided an own royal force, containing a lot of British officers:
“I am not personally acquainted with many of the officers in the force. Nor do I know the duties they perform. They do not even seem to know that they are my soldiers.”
The British finally march into Afghan land over the sidepathes of the Hindu Kush and from the South: thousands of officers with their servants, followed by 4,500 Indian sepoys and a 15,500-men staff. Each of the British officers with a dozen or more camels at their service, equipped with boxes full of tobacco, wine, brandy and other luxury goods. Similarities to today's way of western living in Kabul here again immediately come up.
// After entering the captial in early 1840 and Shah Shuja being re-inthroned as the new and old king,
the honeymoon quickly turns into blank refusal. One reason is due to the sheer size of the army and its followers, quickly turning their presence into a nightmare for the local population:
“Kabul already had a discreet red light district in teh quarter occupied by Indian musicians and dancers close to the walls of the Bala Hisar. But there were not nearly enough Indian rundis around to cope with the demand created by the garrisson of 4.500 sepoys and 15.500 camp followers, and a growing number of Afghan women seem to have made themselves available for a short but profitable ride into the cantonment. Indeed this became so common that the British began to compose rhymes about the easy availabiltiy of Afghan women: “A Kabul wife under burkha cover. Was never known without a lover.”
// Dalrmyple, according to his own words, has discovered a good deal of primary sources while walking through the markets of the Old City in Kabul for his research. He found several tomes of what turned out to be precious accounts on the Anglo-Afghan war at at small shops in the bazaar, he writes, accounts that Afghan migrating families of bourgeois or noble origin would leave behind in the 1970s and 80s. Based on these worksm the first Anglo-Afghan war should perceived somewhat different, the author claims:
'The Afghan side with clearly contoured leading figures, all human beings with feelings, individual viewpoints and their own proper motivations. Quite in contrast to British sources that represent the leaders of the Afghan insurgency as undifferentiated and as traitors, bigoted or fanatical.'
Far from depicting the Afghans as bloodthirsty savages, his book is precious for it portrays both sides with the look of the others. Something crucially missing today when it comes to analyze the history of the years after 2001 and how Afghan analysts and historians see it.
// Dalrymple lives in Delhi today, with a critical eye on the current conflict, a Great Game bis, after the big game of the Imperial powers in the 19th Century, with Afghanistan as a buffer zone between England and Russia.
And today?"Only when all are dead, the Great Game will be over. Not before", says Kim, the hero in Rudyard Kipling's novel. This can be long ahead. Towards the end of the book, Dalrymple recalls a meeting with a tribal elder of the Ghilzai Pashtuns who looks int 2014 any beyond: " These are the last days of the Americans. Next it will be China."
This is an independent blog on Afghanistan. I have been working regularly in Afghanistan as a freelance reporter and correspondent mostly with national German media in the past ten years. I've also been a trainer for a new generation of Afghan journalists and with organisations of the Afghan civil society, last not least an guest author with AAN Afghanistan Analysts network. All photos on this page are from the author, unless signaled differently. Reproduction in any illegal form is prohibited. This blog comes in English and in German language.
Dieser Blog versteht sich als ein unabhängiges Informations-Angebot zum Thema Afghanistan. Als freier Autor und Korrespondent arbeite seit Anfang 2004 regelmäßig am Hindukusch für deutsche Medien und ARD-Hörfunk, daneben vor allem auch in der Ausbildung afghanischer Journalisten/
-innen und der afghanischen Zivilgesellschaft. Der Blog versucht u.a. Stimmen von Afghanen stärker in die Debatte einfliessen zu lassen. Fotos in diesem Blog stammen sämtlich vom Autor soweit nicht anders gekennzeichnet. Das Reproduzieren oder die Verwendung in anderen Formen bedarf der ausdrücklichen Zustimmung.