American University Of Afghanistan Rocked By Kabul Bombing

When a suicide bomber and gunmen attacked a popular restaurant in Kabul on Jan. 17, two of those who died worked for the American University of Afghanistan. Their deaths have shaken the young campus, which has been largely immune from violence. NPR's Jacki Lyden speaks to the university's president, C. Michael Smith, about how the bombing has affected both students and faculty.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Last week, 21 people were killed when a suicide bomber attacked a restaurant popular with expats living in Kabul. Among the dead were two people working for the American University in Afghanistan. From behind its fortified walls, the university has operated relatively unscathed since it opened in 2006. It's benefited from a huge infusion of cash from the United States which sees the campus as an incubator of talent and entrepreneurship.

Despite the turmoil in Afghanistan, the university has been able to attract foreign professors and staff and has just partnered with Stanford Law School to start training lawyers. Joining us now is the president of the university, C. Michael Smith. Mr. Smith, before we even begin, we really want to offer our condolences on the death of two of your faculty, Lexi Kamerman and Alexandros Petersen. We're so very sorry.

C. MICHAEL SMITH: Jacki, thank you very much. We're all so just incredibly saddened here in Kabul. And, in fact, on Sunday we're planning a memorial service here for our students and staff members and faculty members so that they can express their grief and also their condolences for the families involved.

LYDEN: These deaths, as you must know, have probably changed the climate there. I'd like to ask you how they've affected your vision of the university's mission and what you do going forward.

SMITH: I mean, it has had an extraordinary impact obviously and it certainly has caused us to reassess some of the security preparations that we have. Having said that though, we're also mindful here that the two people who lost their lives were here because they were committed to a better Afghanistan and a better quality of education, especially higher education in this country.

And in a way, the best way to honor them and honor their intentions is for this university to be that much more resolute in its determination to offer high quality higher education to Afghan students and to continue to grow and develop programs that will help the country develop.

LYDEN: Soon the U.S. will be pulling out the remainder of its troops and that has to be a further concern.

SMITH: It is. My wife and I have been here for going on five years now in Kabul with the university and there is always that kind of concern as troops are being drawn down that things may move in a direction of more turmoil. On the other hand, it's also true, if you've been here for a while, you know, you can sort of see what's happened in terms of the buildup of the Afghan forces that are certainly much stronger now - the government forces - than they were before.

And so my sort of gut sense about this is that although there are going to be some rough spots in the long run there's been sufficient progress and sufficient improvements in the Afghan security forces that it may not be as problematic, perhaps, as some people think.

LYDEN: I want to step back for a moment. Kabul has had its own universities for quite a while. What do you think the presence of yours means for the future of Afghanistan?

SMITH: Education is just so important for any developing country. In the period of Taliban rule, where education was just decimated across Afghanistan at every level really and their only - at one point the figures I've seen, you know, something like 5,000 students total in higher education in the entire country, almost no women involved in education in the country and so forth. And then the loss of faculty members was, you know, just devastating to the Kabul University and other universities. So they're rebuilding.

LYDEN: I can remember being in Kabul in 2001 and a female classroom with no roof, roofless because of all the fighting; women sitting there with their grammar books trying to relearn after a decade of their learning being suspended.

SMITH: I think that's exactly right and I think given that, and given the fact that that was just 12 years ago, there really has been an extraordinary amount of progress in the country in education and other respects as well. And it tends to be not always noticed because of the very unfortunate, terrible violence that does happen still in different situations like the one we've been talking about. But overall the country has just made huge strides and that's true for higher education as well, and hopefully we're contributing to that.

LYDEN: Well, thank you so very much. We'll be thinking of you, your colleagues, your students on Sunday when you remember those you've lost.

SMITH: Thank you very much.

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