Why cancellation of Fulbright Program in Afghanistan matters

Mohsin Amin

After the US’s catastrophic exit from Afghanistan, the programme should have been cherished, not abandoned.

Many have been puzzled by the policy choices of the Biden administration vis-à-vis Afghanistan since the United States’ disastrous withdrawal from the country last August. It is not clear whether these choices are aimed at appeasing domestic audiences or collectively punishing a people for the unsuccessful ending 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 been objectively harmful to the Afghan people is seemingly endless. After the withdrawal in August, for example, the US failed to swiftly evacuate and resettle thousands of Afghans who had helped its troops and suddenly found themselves at risk of retaliation. Many of these people are still in limbo in third countries, or in hiding in Afghanistan some six months later. After the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Washington also renewed sanctions and froze Afghan funds, leaving the country’s banking system in shambles. All this 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 splitting $7bn in frozen Afghan funds held in US banks, allotting half for the benefit of the Afghan people, but keeping the other half available for possible seizure by victims of the September 11 attacks.

And a few weeks ago, the US added one more inexplicably vengeful policy to this list: it cancelled the Fulbright Foreign Student Program 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 shattering of all their dreams and hopes for a better future.

Fulbright, America’s flagship educational exchange programme with the stated aim of “building bridges between the US and other countries”, provides Afghan graduate students with the opportunity to obtain a fully-funded masters degree in the US.

On January 28, 140 Afghan semifinalists of the programme – who all passed a rigorous review process based on academic excellence, leadership skills, work experience, command of English, and strength of study/research objectives to reach this level – received an email that perhaps changed their lives forever. It read: “Due to significant barriers impeding 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 move forward.”

Across the country, semifinalists, who had sacrificed so much and worked so hard to be considered for the life-changing opportunity, were left 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 when Kandahar was in the middle of intense war,” a semifinalist named Sayed Abdul Rahim Afghan tweeted. The night before the test, I couldn’t sleep because of the sounds of incessant gunfire and explosions. And this is the reply we get after one year.”

The cancellation has “ruined my life”, Noor Mohammad, a semifinalist from rural Paktika, an area that has been devastated by war, drought and poverty for over 40 years in southeastern Afghanistan, told the media. “I had planned my entire career and life around it and sacrificed everything else for it. I am in shock now and do not know what to do.”

Many others revealed how they’d had to borrow money or work as labourers to pay for language courses. They explained how after hours of back-breaking manual labour, they studied for TOEFL at night, in 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 too well how painful such a loss would be.

Some years ago, I too was a high school student in rural Afghanistan who dreamt of securing a Fulbright scholarship and studying in the US. I lived in a village in Nangarhar, where I had no access to electricity, clean drinking water, or even a chair to sit on while I studied. I would wait by a muddy road early every morning for a truck to pass by, so I could jump on the back to go to a language course in Jalalabad. It took years of hard work, many sacrifices, but in the end, I did it: I became a Fulbright scholar.

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

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

I had the opportunity to meet Professor Francis Fukuyama, and exchanged emails with Professor Noam Chomsky. I had long, friendly discussions over coffee with a pastor, a priest and a rabbi. I presided over the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) for over a year at OSU and arranged iftars for Muslims during Ramadan. I attended academic and cultural programmes organised by Indigenous and Black American student clubs.

The Fulbright Program undoubtedly changed the trajectory of my life. It also taught me so much about life, and the importance of people-to-people relationships beyond borders. I had the opportunity to see how Americans in urban centres and rural areas alike go about their lives knowing very little about Afghanistan and Afghans despite the US’s extensive involvement in my country. I saw how common it is for them to assume “all Afghans are terrorists”. But I also saw how open they can be to learn, once they meet an Afghan.

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

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

This unfortunate decision will also harm the US and its already much-tainted legacy in my country.

According to the State Department, around 960 Afghans have benefitted from Fulbright scholarships since 2003. That means, since the US invasion of Afghanistan, 960 bright young Afghans had the opportunity to study in the US, learn about American culture, teach Americans about their country, and become “bridges” between the two nations.

After the US’s catastrophic exit from Afghanistan, such cultural, academic and human connections are more important than ever before.

The US now has to decide what legacy it wants to leave behind in Afghanistan after ending its 20-year occupation: A legacy of collective punishment and abandonment, or a legacy of mutual respect and cooperation.

Since last August, the Biden administration’s policy choices consistently signalled a preference for collective punishment. Largely thanks to the US, my country is currently on the brink of famine, its economy is strangled, its central bank reserves are frozen and people do not have access to their savings.

But this does not have to be the US’s legacy in Afghanistan. It is not too late to change course, and do the right thing.

Reviving the Fulbright scholarship programme for Afghans could be a small first step towards correcting the US’s recent missteps in Afghanistan. It would not only show the semi-finalists that their hard work was not for nothing, but also signal to all Afghans that the US is still willing to build bridges between the two countries.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Why cancellation of Fulbright Program in Afghanistan matters