American university attack hits at heart of Afghan liberal learning

August 25, 2016 7:30 PM EDT

An Afghan policeman stands guard after an attack at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, Afghanistan August 25, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail


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By Hamid Shalizi and Tommy Wilkes

KABUL/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - With its spacious, leafy campus, foreign professors and English-language MBAs, the American University in Kabul offers young Afghan students the kind of Western-style education unimaginable for most of their peers.

The image of an island of liberalism and learning in a country plagued by militant violence has been shattered.

On Wednesday evening, at least two gunmen stormed classrooms after a suspected car bomb was used to get into the walled complex, and killed seven students and a professor.

The death toll could have been far higher, with most students managing to barricade themselves in classrooms or flee to safety, even if it meant breaking bones as they jumped from the second floor of a building.

As security forces patrolled the 5-acre campus on Thursday and university staff visited the wounded in hospital, students weighed up the risks of returning to their education.

"Now my parents say I should stop studying there if it reopens, but I want to continue, because is there another institution like it in the whole country?" said Farooq, an international relations student.

Opened in 2006 and partly funded by U.S. aid, the not-for-profit American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) had grown to accommodate 1,700 students, offering some of the country's most respected degrees craved by young people restless for opportunities.

A slick promotion video on the university's website shows smiling Afghan men and women in traditional Western robes and mortar boards preparing to graduate.

Pupils range from poorer Afghans on scholarships to the sons and daughters of the country's elite.

The university also offers overseas exchange programs to the United States and Germany, a further incentive to those deciding whether to go back.

"When the university reopens, I will be the first to enter and continue my education. The terrorists can never stop us from learning," said Wahida Faizi.

NO CLAIM

There has been no claim of responsibility for the raid, which ended after security forces cleared buildings early on Thursday.

Islamist militants have increasingly targeted educational institutions in countries including neighboring Pakistan, in an effort to frighten the public and damage centers of learning they deem out of place in their vision of an Islamic society.

Taliban insurgents who control swathes of rural Afghanistan and want to topple the Western-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani also frequently attack places where foreigners live or gather, leaving the American University even more vulnerable.

Two teachers from the university, an American and an Australian, were abducted at gunpoint from a road near the campus on Aug. 7. They are still missing.

Among the wounded in Wednesday's attack was a Ugandan professor, according to the Kabul emergency hospital where he was being treated.

FOREIGN ACADEMICS

Despite security concerns, the university's reputation and unique setting have continued to attract overseas teaching staff, even as the insurgency grew and foreigners were targeted.

Some 60 percent of professors are foreign and the wider academic staff are drawn from 16 countries including Afghanistan, said Shamroz Khan Masjidi, a university spokesman.

Ten academics joined from overseas shortly before the start of classes in mid-August.

Security had been beefed up since 2014, when a wave of bombings in Kabul targeting foreign guesthouses, restaurants and clubs drove many expatriates to leave the city.

At the university, accommodation for foreign faculty members was built on site a few years ago, overseen by a watchtower and armed guards, and expatriates were chaperoned by an Afghan if they left the campus compound.

Still, security would have to be tightened further.

"Extra and upgraded measures have to be taken," said Masjidi, declining to specify what they would be.

Edrees Nawabi, another student at the university, said he feared that foreign teachers would be less willing to come to Kabul after the attack.

But Masjidi sounded a note of defiance.

"The attack will not deter us from our determination to provide education to Afghan students, and AUAF will rise again, even stronger."

(Additional reporting and writing by Mirwais Harooni; Editing by Mike Collett-White)



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