With the 2014 deadline fast approaching for the withdrawal of US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, American and European politicians and analysts are busy trying to resolve pressing state-building issues. When it comes to ensuring security, policymakers should not forget about higher education in Afghanistan.
The increasing politicization of Afghan universities should be high on the list of security concerns. Anti-Western and anti-government militant groups are winning the increasing support of Afghan university students, and these groups already have managed to organize campus units that are assiduously undermining gradual efforts to liberalize Afghan society.
Moreover, some recent incidents on campuses clearly show that universities are places where political tensions are likely to burst first, and where student protests might potentially become a trigger for countrywide violence.
An example of current campus dynamics is found at the University of Nangarhar in the eastern city of Jalalabad. There, a reportedly large number of the roughly 7,500 students and many lecturers are organized in Hizb-e Islami, or Taliban groups at the university. These groups are prime movers in mobilizing frequent demonstrations against both the Afghan government and international actors. The protests, in turn, have been shown to be an effective tool for militants in setting the local population against foreigners and their allies in Kabul. Indeed, it is in the Jalalabad area where the political costs for any mistakes of President Hamid Karzai’s administration or international forces are the highest, since they are politically exploited the moment they are made.
Universities not only serve as a font of destabilization, they also can be the scene of violence. In November 2012, for instance, sectarian conflict erupted at Kabul University, where Sunni Muslim students tried to prevent Shi’a Muslims from celebrating the Ashura festival inside a dormitory mosque. Hundreds of students became embroiled in clashes, which left one dead and several injured. According to observers, non-student activists also got involved, significantly escalating the violence.
Non-student activists also played a prominent role in fanning trouble in a different campus disturbance at Kabul’s University of Education in September 2012. Trouble began when President Karzai moved to rename the university in honor of Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik who had been an Afghan head of state during the early 1990s and who was assassinated in 2011. Pashtun and Hazara students opposed the name-change. Their protests were peaceful at first, but turned violent when non-student agitators got involved.
Clashes like the ones sketched out above show that in Afghanistan universities and politics are still tightly intertwined, and that campuses are microcosms of pressing national issues. Indeed, both examples are rooted in one of the most crucial societal challenges in the country, namely the increasing fractionalization along ethno-religious lines.
It is this potential for actual violence that should make Afghan universities a priority matter for policymakers mulling post-2014 security issues. After all, Afghanistan still is a tinderbox and every spark of violence could have unpredictable consequences.
It is also worth remembering that Afghan campuses have traditionally figured prominently in Afghan security politics. The leftist-Islamist conflict in the 1960s was to a large extent fought out at universities, with both professors and students actively supporting one ideology or the other via organized cells on campuses. When the Soviets occupied the country starting in 1979, communist groups controlled the universities, and after the Mujahidin gained power in 1992, religious groups became dominant.
Experts and policy-makers would do well to acknowledge existing conditions at institutions of higher learning in Afghanistan, and take steps to neutralize the influence of those groups that are, in effect, anti-intellectual in their outlook.
On a practical level, foreign officials and experts should encourage the development of mechanisms to counteract campus rabble-rousers, along with outside agitators: such mechanisms could include campus-based early warning systems and conflict-resolution centers, as well as capacity building designed to promote the enforcement of existing laws that prohibit political activities at universities. The very least that needs to be done is to acknowledge campus politics as an urgent security matter, and prioritize universities on the state reconstruction agenda.
The current level of politicization significantly interferes with intellectual freedom and the spirit of inquiry at Afghan universities. This poses a medium- to long-term threat to the viability of the state, given that Afghanistan will need a well-trained core to manage the country in a stable and prosperous manner.
Urs Schrade is a conflict researcher and consultant based in Berlin. His areas of expertise include Afghanistan, Central Asia and United Nations Peacekeeping. He is pursuing a PhD at the Free University of Berlin and covers Afghanistan as lead researcher for NYU'S Scholars at Risk Academic Freedom MONITOR.