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Duke bids to host Afghan institute

The intellectual life of Afghanistan may be getting a much-needed resuscitation from an unlikely source - Duke University.

Despite not having a single specialist in Afghanistan studies, the University may soon become an overnight leader in the field if it agrees to host the U.S. office of the proposed American Institute of Afghanistan Studies, spearheaded by Professor of History John Richards.

"It will make us into a leader," said Vice Provost for International Affairs Gilbert Merkx. "In the world of Afghani studies, we will rise to top prominence."

The institute's headquarters would be in Afghanistan, with the mission of reinvigorating the country's nascent academic community and giving scholars their best opportunity for research about Afghanistan since the country's 1978 revolution set off over a decade of civil war.

"What the institute is trying to do is essentially resuscitate Afghanistan studies,... put Afghanistan back on the map and make it a place where scholars are welcome," said David Edwards, professor of anthropology at Williams College and a member of the institute's advisory board.

If the institute wins final approval from all parties involved - which should come in the next few months - the University will provide it with an office and some staff support. Richards said the institute may begin sending scholars to Afghanistan within a year.

The institute would be affiliated with the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, which currently has 19 member institutes in countries across the world that receive funding from both the U.S. State Department and educational institutions.

"[CAORC-affiliated institutes] are interesting because they've got one foot in the government bureaucracy and one foot in the kind of autonomous academic realm," said Shah Hanifi, an Afghanistan specialist at Wayne State University and member of the advisory board. "What, ultimately, these things do is structure the intellectual engagement between the two countries.... Hopefully it's one of the anchors that will keep the [countries] engaged in a non-violent way."

For a generation, Afghanistan struggled under the constant shadow of war, as a third of its population fled to escape poverty and political uncertainty. Power shifted from one government to another, and education was frequently given the short shrift.

"Universities have not functioned and academic life has not functioned," Richards said.

Although the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001 renewed hope for stability, some reports have questioned whether the new transitional government can parlay its limited authority into substantial progress. "Afghanistan is still is a crapshoot," Edwards admitted. "I think you always have to be worried about it.... When this institute was proposed, it was a gamble in the sense that it's not the most stable situation in the world."

However, Edwards added that the "sensitive, unbiased scholarship" provided by the institute could help further the country's re-emergence into the world.

Richards agreed, saying the institute would confer great benefits to the Afghan people. "One of the absolutely essential aspects of nation-building is having some internally-driven intellectual life," he said.

There is a small group of scholars who study Afghanistan, a field that has historically found itself marginalized by scholarship on Eurasian cultures. Furthermore, since recent scholarship has been stymied by the country's disarray, Edwards said a "generation gap" has developed between older researchers and those who have been forced to study the country from the outside. For that reason, graduate students will be especially encouraged to take advantage of the institute, he said.

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