The Saudis and Iranians are building outposts in Kabul. Meanwhile, a U.S. university there needs bolstering.
The Saudis and Iranians are building outposts in Kabul. Meanwhile, a U.S. university there needs bolstering.
Two new initiatives focused in Kabul but originating in the Middle East threaten to draw Afghanistan into the vortex of Middle Eastern strife and to undermine prospects for a secular government. America will need to present an alternative to forces that seek to roll back much of what has been accomplished in Afghanistan.
In November, Saudi Arabia launched a huge new mosque and Islamic Center on a hill in Kabul’s center. The Saudi ambassador declared unconvincingly that the mosque’s purpose is to fight terrorism and “present a moderate and true face of Islam.” Iran is also constructing a mosque in central Kabul and, if asked, would probably make the same claim. Both complexes include a mosque and school, but the similarity ends there. One will promote the Saudi’s hard-line Sunni Wahabbism, while the other will propagate the Ayatollahs’ hard-line Shiite Islam.
Just as these two states and religions are engaged in an undeclared but bloody war in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, they are at loggerheads in Afghanistan and view the struggle there as a zero-sum game. If either prevails, Afghanistan will be the loser.
So far the country has largely escaped the strife arising from the millennium-old conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam and the more ancient struggle between Persians and Arabs. Afghans do not consider theirs to be a Middle Eastern country. Even the branch of Islamic law that prevails in Afghanistan, the relatively mild Hanafi school, sets it apart from the Saudis and Iranians.
If Afghanistan is pulled in either direction it will draw the country into a brutal religious storm. No less serious, either alternative poses a direct threat to the ideal—lost for decades but now taking hold again—of an educated and modern Afghanistan based on secular laws and open to new knowledge in all spheres; of a country where jobs are accessible equally to men and women, and where education challenges minds rather than inculcates doctrines.
Has America offered any alternative to the threat posed by these dueling mosques? It has in the form of the American University of Afghanistan, chartered in 2004 as the country’s first private and independent institution of higher education. Laura Bush launched construction the following year by announcing a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Since then public and private donors have helped the university increase its faculty, build or remodel facilities, increase course offerings and expand its crucial scholarship program.
The university now offers programs in political science, public administration, business administration and computer science. Stanford helped create a five-year M.A. program in law; an M.B.A. program has opened, and a school of agriculture is planned. The university has even set up branch centers in three provincial capitals, where 300 young Afghan teacher trainers have begun spreading the university’s knowledge and values into thousands of school classrooms across Afghanistan.
Last month I delivered the graduation address at the university. The scene would have been familiar at any American college campus, as the graduates laughed, cried and tossed their mortarboards into the air. This is the wonder of the place. I met graduates with illiterate cousins who had fought with the Taliban. Others told me they had farmed or peddled dry goods to pay tuition. There were men and women who had already started their own businesses, while others who were determined to pursue careers in education.
At the epicenter of the new campus stands the gleaming new International Center for Afghan Women’s Economic Development. Some of the graduates perched their mortarboards atop Islamic scarfs while others came dressed in the height of Western fashion. The fact that half of all incoming students are women shows that the American University of Afghanistan has figured out how to translate its vision into reality.
Some of the parents and relatives at the ceremony were educated and prosperous, others barely literate. Two fathers told me through tears that “these children are our dream of a better life,” and “if they have no future, then Afghanistan has no future.”
Who is paying for this educational miracle? The question is important, since most of the campus has yet to be built and 70% of students require need-based financial aid. There is scarcely money to pay faculty salaries, and few Americans have stepped forward to fund urgently needed scholarships. Unlike either the Saudi or Iranian mosques, the American University here has no endowment.
Pondering these statistics, I think back over the years since 2001 and the enormous sacrifice the U.S. has made. Not just to fight al Queda or the Taliban, but to build a better life for Afghans, so their country—and ours—will never again fall prey to such barbarians.
What reasonable nation would sacrifice the lives of 2,254 of its young men and women fighting in Afghanistan and then pull back from funding an institution that can help prevent the kind of desperation that led to 9/11? What sane investor would sink $1 trillion into a country and then walk away?
Every day it becomes clearer what will happen if America takes this course, as we watch the Saudi and Iranian minarets going up in Kabul and read the grim news from Paris. The new university can be a powerful and enduring symbol of America’s values. But if it is not sustained, thousands of young men and women—people who could make their country the kind of place America fought for—will have been abandoned to a grim fate. If this happens, our promises will ring hollow and our sacrifice in lives and treasure will have been for nothing.
Mr. Starr is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Whether Russian President Vladimir Putin dies in office, is ousted in a palace coup, or relinquishes power for some unforeseen reason, the United States and its allies would face a radically different Russia with the Kremlin under new management. The geopolitical stakes mean that policymakers would be negligent not to plan for the consequences of a post-Putin Russia. On November 2, 2023, CACI Chairman S. Frederick Starr joined a panel organized by the Hudson Institute’s Center on Europe and Eurasia for a discussion on how US and allied policymakers can prepare for a Russia after Putin.
Click here to watch on YouTube or scroll down to watch the full panel discussion.
REPRINTED with permission from Voice of America News
By Navbahor Imamova
WASHINGTON -- U.S.-based diplomats from Central Asia, a region long dominated by Russia and more recently China, say they are eager for more engagement with the United States.
Many American foreign policy experts agree that a more robust relationship would be mutually beneficial, though U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations express deep concerns about human rights and authoritarian rule in the five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Michael Delaney, a former U.S. trade official, argued in favor of greater engagement this week at a webinar organized by the American-Uzbekistan Chamber of Commerce.
He noted that three of the five republics are World Trade Organization members and the other two are in the accession process — a goal actively encouraged by the U.S. government.
"I've always believed that this is a geographically disadvantaged area. There are relatively small national economies," he said. But, he said, collectively the region represents a potentially more connected market, about 80 million people.
In this virtual gathering, all five Central Asian ambassadors to Washington expressed eagerness to work on issues the U.S. has long pushed for, such as water and energy sustainability, security cooperation, environmental protection and climate, and connectivity.
Kazakhstan's Ambassador Yerzhan Ashikbayev said that despite all factors, the United States does not want to leave the field to China, its global competitor, which actively invests in the region.
"Recent visit by 20 companies to Kazakhstan as a part of certified U.S. trade mission, including technology giants like Apple, Microsoft, Google, but also other partners like Boeing, have shown a growing interest," Ashikbayev said.
The Kazakh diplomat described a "synergy" of economies and diplomatic efforts. All Central Asian states are committed to dialogue, trade and multilateralism, he said. "As we are witnessing the return of the divisive bloc mentalities almost unseen for 30 years, it's in our best interest to prevent Central Asia from turning into another battleground of global powers."
During his first tour of Central Asia earlier this year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, meeting separately with the foreign ministers of all five countries.
That was deeply appreciated, said Meret Orazov, Turkmenistan's longtime ambassador, who also praised the regular bilateral consultations the U.S. holds with these countries.
Uzbek Ambassador Furqat Sidiqov sees the U.S. as an important partner, with "long-standing friendship and cooperation which have only grown stronger over the years."
"The U.S. has played a significant role in promoting dialogue and cooperation among the Central Asian nations through initiatives such as the C5+1," he said, referring to a diplomatic platform comprising Washington and the region's five governments.
"This is where we address common concerns and enhance integration," said Sidiqov. "We encourage the U.S. to bolster this mechanism."
Tashkent regards Afghanistan as key to Central Asia's development, potentially linking the landlocked region to the markets and seaports of South Asia. Sidiqov said his country counts on American assistance.
'Possibility of positive change'
Fred Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in Washington, ardently advocates for the U.S. to adopt closer political, economic and people-to-people ties with the region.
In a recent paper, he wrote that among dozens of officials, diplomats, entrepreneurs, experts, journalists and civil society leaders interviewed in Central Asia, "even those most critical of American positions saw the possibility of positive change and … all acknowledged that the need for change is on both sides, theirs as well as ours."
This is the only region that doesn't have its own organization, said Starr, arguing that the U.S. could support this effort. "We have not done so, probably because we think that this is somehow going to interfere with their relations with their other big neighbors, the north and east, but it's not going to. It's not against anyone."
"Easy to do, low cost, very big outcome," he added, also underscoring that "there is a feeling the U.S. should be much more attentive to security."
"Japan, the European Union, Russia, China, their top leaders have visited. … No U.S. president has ever set foot in Central Asia," he said. He added that regional officials are left to wonder, "Are we so insignificant that they can't take the time to visit?"
Starr urges U.S. President Joe Biden to convene the C5+1 in New York during the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly in September. "This would not be a big drain on the president's time, but it would be symbolically extremely important," he said. "All of them want this to happen."
Read at VOA News
Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.
The American Purpose, May 23, 2023
Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?
S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.
What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”
Listen to CACI director Svante Cornell's recent interview on the 'John Batchelor Show' podcast regarding Turkey's 2023 presidential election. Click here!