Why canceling the Fulbright program in Afghanistan matters | Opinions

Many have been puzzled by the Biden administration’s policy choices vis-a-vis Afghanistan since the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from the country last August. It is unclear whether these choices are intended to appease the domestic public or to collectively punish a people for the unsuccessful end of a long and costly war. Either way, they are causing immense suffering to Afghans who have already suffered enough.

Indeed, the list of recent US policy choices that have objectively been detrimental to the Afghan people is seemingly endless. After the withdrawal in August, for example, the United States failed to quickly evacuate and resettle thousands of Afghans who had helped its troops and suddenly found themselves under threat of reprisals. Many of these people are still in limbo in third countries or in hiding in Afghanistan some six months later. After the Taliban took control of Kabul, Washington also renewed sanctions and froze Afghan funds, leaving the country’s banking system in shambles. All of this has led to an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, leaving eight out of nine families in Afghanistan in need of food aid. A few months later, President Joe Biden signed an executive order dividing $7 billion in frozen Afghan funds held in US banks, allocating half for the benefit of the Afghan people, but keeping the other half available for eventual seized by victims of the September 11 attacks. .

And a few weeks ago, the United States added another inexplicably vengeful policy to this list: it canceled the Fulbright program for foreign students in Afghanistan for the 2022-23 academic year.

This may seem like a minor development in the grand scheme of things. But for dozens of young Afghan scholars, it marked the dashing of all their dreams and hopes for a better future.

Fulbright, the flagship U.S. educational exchange program with the stated goal of “building bridges between the United States and other countries,” offers Afghan graduate students the opportunity to earn a fully-funded master’s degree in the United States. United.

On January 28, the program‘s 140 Afghan semi-finalists – all of whom passed a rigorous review process based on academic excellence, leadership skills, work experience, English proficiency and strength of study/research goals to reach this level – received an email that may have changed their lives forever. It read: “Due to significant barriers that impede our ability to provide a safe exchange experience, the selection process for the Fulbright Foreign Student Program in Afghanistan for the 2022-23 academic year will not go from the front.”

Across the country, the semi-finalists, who had sacrificed so much and worked so hard to be considered for this life-changing opportunity, were devastated.

“I begged my relatives to pay for my TOEFL test [Test of English as a Foreign Language, passing of which is a prerequisite to admission into the Fulbright Program] and took it while Kandahar was in the midst of an intense war,” tweeted a semi-finalist named Sayed Abdul Rahim Afghan. The night before the test, I couldn’t sleep because of the constant sounds of gunfire and explosions. And that’s the answer we get after a year.

The cancellation has “ruined my life”, campaign semi-finalist Noor Mohammad told media in Paktika, a region devastated by war, drought and poverty for more than 40 years in south-east India. Afghanistan. “I had planned my whole career and my life around it and sacrificed everything else for it. I’m in shock now and I don’t know what to do.

Many others revealed that they had to borrow money or work as laborers to pay for language lessons. They explained that after hours of grueling manual labor, they studied for the TOEFL at night, by candlelight, with no electricity or internet access. They explained how they now feel hopeless, lost.

I was deeply saddened by these accounts because I know only too well how painful such a loss would be.

A few years ago, I too was a high school student in rural Afghanistan who dreamed of getting a Fulbright scholarship and studying in the United States. I lived in a village in Nangarhar, where I had no access to electricity, clean water, or even a chair to sit on while I studied. I waited early every morning on the side of a muddy road for a truck to pass so I could jump in the back to go to a language course in Jalalabad. It took years of hard work, many sacrifices, but in the end, I succeeded: I became a Fulbright Scholar.

The program allowed me to attend Oregon State University (OSU) and live in Corvallis, one of the most beautiful college towns in the United States.

Throughout the program, I had the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with Americans from all walks of life – academics, professionals, my neighbors. I told them stories about Afghanistan, and they shared with me their experiences of American life.

I had the opportunity to meet Professor Francis Fukuyama, and to exchange emails with Professor Noam Chomsky. I had long friendly discussions over coffee with a pastor, a priest and a rabbi. I chaired the Muslim Student Association (MSA) for over a year at OSU and hosted iftars for Muslims during Ramadan. I participated in academic and cultural programs organized by Native American and Black American student clubs.

The Fulbright program has undoubtedly changed the trajectory of my life. It also taught me a lot about life and the importance of interpersonal relationships across borders. I have had the opportunity to see how Americans in urban centers and rural areas go about their lives knowing very little about Afghanistan and the Afghan people, despite the significant involvement of the United States in my country. I saw how common it is for them to assume that “all Afghans are terrorists”. But I’ve also seen how open they can be to learning once they meet an Afghan.

This is why the US State Department’s decision to cancel the Fulbright Fellowship program for Afghan scholars in 2022-23 is devastating and unacceptable.

This decision undoubtedly crushed 140 young Afghan university students, including 70 resilient girls, who had worked hard to reach the semi-finals. But the cancellation will not only hurt them.

This unfortunate decision will also harm the United States and its already badly tainted legacy in my country.

According to the State Department, approximately 960 Afghans have received Fulbright scholarships since 2003. This means that since the US invasion of Afghanistan, 960 bright young Afghans have had the opportunity to study in the United States, experience American culture, to teach Americans about their country. , and become “bridges” between the two nations.

After the catastrophic exit of the United States from Afghanistan, these cultural, academic and human ties are more important than ever.

The United States must now decide what legacy it wants to leave in Afghanistan after the end of its 20-year occupation: a legacy of collective punishment and abandonment, or a legacy of mutual respect and cooperation.

Since last August, the political choices of the Biden administration have consistently marked a preference for collective punishment. Largely thanks to the United States, my country is currently on the brink of starvation, its economy is strangled, its central bank reserves are frozen, and people have no access to their savings.

But that should not be the legacy of the United States in Afghanistan. It’s not too late to change course and do the right thing.

Reviving the Fulbright scholarship program for Afghans could be a small first step towards correcting recent US missteps in Afghanistan. This would not only show the semi-finalists that their hard work was not wasted, but would also signal to all Afghans that the United States is always ready to build bridges between the two countries.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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