Ambassador Ryan Crocker: An investment worth making

This article originally appeared in Politico on November 1, 2013.

As Congress debates the budget this week, looking to trim an additional $24 billion from already tight federal budgets, there is one place that negotiators may want to cut but should not: foreign assistance.

Foreign assistance is well under 1 percent of the total U.S. federal budget, but it is a crucial investment. It bolsters our security and strengthens our reputation abroad. We gain new allies and we improve the lives of countless people around the world. It is far less costly in lives and dollars than military intervention. Congress must not cut it.

As a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, I have seen firsthand the tremendous impact that one foreign investment in particular is having in that country: the American University of Afghanistan, which is paying tremendous dividends to American taxpayers.

Since admitting its first 50 students in 2006, the university has promoted values including equal rights, the rule of law, and entrepreneurship, all of which are essential to continuing the country’s transformation into a true democracy. More than 1,600 full- and part-time students attend the university in 2013.

The school has also educated a new generation of leaders who have gone on to play active roles in establishing institutions of civil society throughout Afghanistan. Primary among these new leaders are Afghan women, who under the Taliban had been denied any formal education at all. Today, 50 percent of the 2013 freshman class and 30 percent of the overall student body is female. The American University is leading the way for women’s higher education in Afghanistan.

Through the university’s new International Center for Afghan Women’s Economic Development, which recently opened in May, Afghan women are gaining new skills and knowledge in information technology, indigenous industries, and logistics, allowing them to not only enter and succeed in the workforce, but to become business owners themselves. The Women’s Center is the only institution in Afghanistan for women to convene and meet fellow business leaders.

The idea of investing in universities similar to the American University of Afghanistan is not new. Both the American University of Beirut, established in 1866, and the American University in Cairo, established in 1919, receive crucial funding from Congress, even though the United States was never engaged in sustained combat operations in those countries, as we have been in Afghanistan.

The university has a deservedly proud record of educating and empowering Afghan women to participate in Afghanistan’s society. It is producing graduates who will help expand economic growth, create new job opportunities, and lead the nation into the 21st century as a respected member of the international community. The school has produced 11 Fulbright scholars since 2006, and offers the only MBA in the entire country. It also offers a five-year law program taught in partnership with Stanford University, and maintains partnerships with Indiana University, Georgetown University, and the University of California network. I had the privilege of being the commencement speaker in Kabul for the class of 2013, including our first MBA graduates. These are the young men and women who will transform Afghanistan.

The American University of Afghanistan is an anchor of stability and a beacon for the future. It is an engine for change in a country that was once dominated by the Taliban and served as a breeding ground for al Qaeda. The university has educated the future leaders of Afghanistan for the past seven years and will continue to do so.

As U.S. forces and our allies draw down, AUAF remains a proud and lasting legacy of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. It is certainly a wise investment worthy of congressional support.

Ryan Crocker was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from July 2011 to July 2012.