MONITORING (SW) – The CNN has reported that the American University of Afghanistan is drawing up plans to shut down next year, a casualty of anticipated US government budget slashing of the school's steady stream of funding,
According to the report, the university is widely regarded as a top university in Afghanistan and the only one that provides a Western-style education. Established in 2006, the school now has a student body that is about half female and presents an important opportunity for women, who the Taliban once forbid from going to school. Many of its graduates have gone on to serve in the Afghan government.
The university relies on the US Agency for International Development for more than 60% of its budget and could not operate without the agency's financial backing. The school has been unable to secure assurance from the agency that it will continue funding the school.
The current funding will last through May. The university's annual budget is about $28 million, the school's president, David Sedney, told CNN.
"We have a fiduciary responsibility to the faculty, our students and our donors," said a source familiar with the planning for the possible closure. "It is really important that we address what could be the worst-case scenario."
In recent weeks, USAID had a close-out meeting with university personnel at the US Embassy in Kabul, sources told CNN. They covered the procedures for closing a project. The USAID administrator, Mark Green, had a meeting with members of the university's board of trustees in Washington earlier this month and made no firm commitments to renew funding.
"At a meeting with members of the AUAF Board of Trustees on December 9, 2019, USAID's leadership once again strongly encouraged the university to diversify its funding sources, as representatives from the Agency had done in past correspondence and previous meetings, both in Washington and in Kabul," a USAID spokesperson told CNN. "AUAF's Board, not USAID, has the fiduciary responsibility to make decisions regarding the future of the university, which is an independent entity."
As the funding stands now, the year's courses will finish, but the university will have to activate its plan to shut down after graduation.
"In March, international staff will start looking for new jobs. If we are not able to offer contracts by April they will take other jobs," said a source familiar with the university's planning for a possible shutdown.
The education of more than 800 Afghan students, who expected to finish their undergraduate or graduate degrees at the university, would also be upended if the doors closed in May. While the university is seeking out ways to help its students find other places to finish their education should that be necessary, it is a complex and cumbersome process.
"There is no university in Afghanistan like AUAF," said another source familiar with the planning. "We are trying to create a plan [for students] but it would be a highly irresponsible thing for USAID to withdraw funding."
The precise reason that USAID has made no formal funding commitment to the university remains unclear to those involved. News of the potential closing of the university comes as the Trump administration is preparing to announce a drawdown of US troops in Afghanistan.
"In many ways it is a mystery, other than the fact that we know that the Trump administration wants to spend less money abroad and be less involved in Afghanistan," said one source familiar with the school's position. "We are working to make the changes they have asked for."
A USAID spokesperson said future funding for the university will be the result of a "competitive process" and depends on the school's ability to comply with an agreement it made with USAID to improve its operations, fiduciary oversight and internal controls. That agreement came after reports cited alarm about the school's management of its funding.
Former first lady Laura Bush launched the university five years after the Afghanistan War began.
"Establishing a university was a commitment to higher education but also a recognition of the talent in the country. The US government wanted to educate them in their country. It took wrestling with OMB and USAID to get it funded, but it got done," said Anita McBride, who was Bush's chief of staff at the time. "Mrs. Bush's presiding over it was essentially underscoring that education was important to the overall focus of rebuilding of Afghanistan."
"My fear is this university will be caught up in the overall strategy of our posturing and our position as the US government towards Afghanistan. Security remains the biggest obstacle for the school and, frankly, for women progress and women empowerment generally," McBride said.
A USAID spokesperson said they would work with Congress to implement the law and also "review the landscape of higher-education institutions in Afghanistan eligible for support."