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Until recently, Afghanistan has been a remote place on my mental map. Focused as I have been on East and Central Europe before and after 1989, I understood that the end of the Soviet empire was over-determined. This included the overextension of Soviet imperial ambitions in Afghanistan, the global American-Soviet competition, the economic illogic of the previously existing socialist system, and, my primary concern, the development of democratic civic opposition from within the empire. Yet, compared to the dramatic political transformations in Europe that my work anticipated, the long struggle in Afghanistan seemed to be a side issue.
And then came 9/11. The terrorist attacks of 2001, emanating from Al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, touched me: one of my dearest friends, Mike Asher, was killed in the World Trade Center. Another friend, Steve Assael, managed to escape.
Nonetheless, I had a hard time supporting the notion of a “war on terrorism.” Its Orwellian echoes were clear: the nebulous enemy, a never-ending, ever-expanding war, the proliferation of newspeak, the Manichean calculations. A global war on terrorism didn’t make any sense. Perhaps it did as a metaphor, much like “the wars on drugs” and “the war on poverty,” as Michael Walzer argued at the time. But an actual war promised misery wherever it would be fought, as has proved to be the case: the arrogance of American nation-building became a part of this.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there was a broad consensus in the United States for retribution. Calls to punish Afghanistan did not move me. I supported the attacks in Afghanistan targeting Al-Qaeda, but a wider war with broader goals concerned me.
And once the war was declared, I doubted even softer forms of American intervention in Afghanistan. I had a colleague and a cousin who became involved: Andrew Arato was invited to advise on constitutional reforms (he ultimately turned down the invitation), and Ronni Goldfarb worked for years on an NGO supporting women’s education. But I doubted the likely success of any democratic legal or liberal civil order, or gender justice initiative, predicated on outside military intervention and American hegemony.
Yet, I now find myself involved. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I am teaching at the American University of Afghanistan in exile.
And it is essential to say that the problematic American intervention in Afghan affairs did have positive consequences, even as it was plagued by systemic problems revealed in the rapid fall of Kabul to the Taliban in November 2001. The positives included the inclusion of women in public life, the development of a relatively free press and elections, and advances in the rule of law. In addition, educational opportunities for girls and women, boys and men, expanded from grade school to higher education.
One of those opportunities was the establishment of the American University.
I became engaged, primarily online, in the liberal arts mission of the university. I will teach courses and work with the administration, faculty, and students as they respond to their current, challenging circumstances: most of the administration and faculty are in exile, while many students are still in Afghanistan.
This is how.
As the tide of the war turned decisively in the Taliban’s favor, Jonathan Fanton, a friend, colleague, and the former president of The New School, introduced me to Ian Bickford, the President of the American University in Afghanistan. I had worked with Jonathan in the past. We had worked with the underground democratic opposition in Central Europe before the transformations of 1989, then fostered regional and transregional discussions and collaborations on the topic of democracy after 1989. We had also worked together on the liberal arts at the New School when I was Associate Provost for the Liberal Arts.
A few weeks before the Taliban forces swept into Kabul, Ian and I met first on Zoom, he in his office in Kabul and me in my study at home in Irvington, New York. I remember my astonishment at Ian’s calm as the Taliban accumulated victories throughout the countryside and circled in on the cities. He was in the eye of a political hurricane, the chaos surrounding him. I was also struck by Ian’s commitment to the university’s students and professors, his deep appreciation for the university’s mission, and the ideals of the liberal arts. I recognized that his ideals were my own and that he was acting on them in extremely dangerous circumstances.
Yet, he assured me that he and his colleagues were safe.
We arranged a meeting between several professors at the university and participants in my own Democracy Seminar, which sponsored the webinar “What the media is not telling you about the situation in Afghanistan.” A few weeks later, the group had a follow-up webinar about the aftermath of the Taliban victory.
Both webinars were illuminating. In retrospect, the group seemed less insightful about the balance of forces on the ground; more so about their variety and quality. Like many other observers, the university’s faculty and staff didn’t anticipate the rapid fall of Kabul but did understand the complexity of the key players. They reported on the possible support of the Afghan army by local militias. They knew about and represented the range of political opinions in the cities and the countryside. They talked about the enduring changes in Afghan society over the last twenty years, centering on the impact of education far and wide.
They disagreed about how to respond to the Taliban, and their positions in Afghan society and its history also differed. So I had a hard time discerning, and still do, where the group stands on the Afghan political map, probably because they have no single point of view apart from their opposition to the present regime. And they even articulate their opposition differently.
After the Taliban victory, many of the AUAF faculty and staff, along with their students, sought emergency evacuation at Kabul’s airport. Tragically, many students were turned away by the American authorities, even ones already cleared for departure. Currently, the university’s faculty and students are now dispersed. The administration, faculty, and students are now in Doha, Qatar. Other faculty and groups of students are in Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, and just north of my home in the Hudson Valley of New York, at Bard College. Yet others are scattered around the globe.
So, newly retired from The New School, I have joined them. One thing led to another, and I am now teaching a course at the AUAF on civic engagement and the politics of small things as a visiting instructor. In January 2023, I became involved full-time and was appointed a University Professor.
As I have come to know them, the administrators and professors of AUAF embody and enact the ideals of “the university.” They feel like colleagues, a relationship first manifested in my conversations with Ian. I could imagine any one of them as an office neighbor at The New School. Among them are a Milton scholar, a law professor, a promising political theorist, an expert in peace and development studies, and a distinguished scholar of the people of Afghanistan’s long history and cultural accomplishments. These colleagues, their students, and I have many differences, but we are engaged in a similar—indeed, perhaps I can say universal—project of education and intellectual inquiry.
Jeffrey C. Goldfarb is Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow of the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies at The New School. He is the founder of Public Seminar.
This article first appeared in slightly different form as a guest essay on Claire Potter’s Substack, Political Junkie.