Afghanistan studies progressing

Despite facing financial challenges, the Duke-affiliated American Institute for Afghanistan Studies has hired top administrators and is well on its way to establishing a presence in Kabul.

John Richards, president of the AIAS Board of Trustees and a Duke history professor, said the project is "coming along nicely" and that he and others are currently discussing the direction and structure of the institute.

Personnel-wise, the foundations are set. The AIAS Board has appointed Maliha Zulfacar, an assistant professor of ethnic studies at California Polytechnic State University and a native Afghan, director of the center. Since September, she has been working in a large Kabul residence that AIAS has leased to serve as an office, a home for the resident director, a hostel for visiting academics and space for seminars and other functions.

The U.S. office of the AIAS is based at Duke and is comprised of Richards, Vice Provost for International Affairs Gilbert Merkx and U.S. Administrative Director Katie Joyce. Richards recruited 26 institutions and over 30 individuals as dues-paying members of the institute.

Financial challenges remain, however. The $190,000 budget that the AIAS received from the U.S. State Department via the Council of American Overseas Research Centers for its first two years of operation is enough to cover preliminary establishment costs, but not to provide research fellowships.

Richards, however, is confident that a fellowship program will be established for the institute in the near future with the help of federal funding, membership dues and contributions from private benefactors.

"We're hoping to get a fellowship program for pre-doctoral and post-doctoral students going in the next year in the format of a national competition," he said. "I think a lot of Afghan Americans, in particular, would be interested."

The institute's leadership has also encountered some difficulty in transferring funds to Afghanistan, a country that is disconnected from the global credit and banking system. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. federal government has made efforts to shut down a paperless financial dealing system used among Afghan brokers on a trust basis. Although this means of transferring funds had once been used legitimately by American immigrants to send money to relatives and friends abroad, the federal government has worked to stop this practice since it was believed that the system was exploited by Osama bin Laden and members of al-Qaeda in planning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Despite this setback, Richards said he is not worried. "I think we're going to solve those problems; it will just take some time," he said. Shah Hanifi, treasurer of the Board and assistant professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian history at James Madison University, agreed with Richards.

"There are some structural issues there in terms of money and bank-to-bank transfers. The traditional form of moving money is illegal [in the U.S.], but I don't have concerns," Hanifi said.

The institute was conceived by Richards, who taught a history course on Afghanistan in the fall of 2002 that included frequent visits from guest speakers. After conversing with these visiting historians and anthropologists who had done significant research on the country, Richards said he was "struck by their isolation from one another and, despite recent public attention to Afghanistan, their marginalization in the wider U.S. academic world."

Richards was inspired to create an institute that would foster interaction among specialists on Afghan culture. With a unique opportunity following the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, he hoped to contribute to the rejuvenation of intellectual life in the country through a partnership of research between U.S. and Afghan scholars.

Thomas Farrell, deputy assistant secretary for academic studies at the educational and cultural affairs bureau of the U.S. State Department, expressed excitement about the institute and its implications for intellectual cooperation.

"We thought this was a fantastic way for the private, higher education research sector to engage in international scholarship. It provides a good, neutral area for Afghans to reach mutual understanding [with Americans] without political overtones," he said.

Preliminary plans for obtaining funding and setting up the institute took place at Duke at an April 2003 meeting of leading Afghanistan specialists. Throughout the process of developing the AIAS, the University has played a central role.

"We were very, very pleased that Duke University offered to be the initial home for the institute," Farrell said. "Duke is held in such high regard in the academic community, and it would give the initiative a lot of credibility."


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