New leader at American university after terror attack

Amid uncertainty, persistent threats of terrorist attacks and kidnapping, the American University of Afghanistan or AUAF in Kabul has appointed a new president.

David Sedney, the new acting president for the prestigious academic institution, is an independent analyst and commentator on national security and foreign policy. His previous interaction with Afghanistan was as the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia 2009-13 and stints at the US Embassy in Kabul in 2002 and 2003-04.

His profile, published on the AUAF website, highlights his expertise in the field of security; a key component for managing an academic institution in the middle of a war, though there is little indication so far of when the institution, closed since a suicide bombing in August, will reopen.

Sedney replaces Mark English who stepped down as president unexpectedly on 24 September, a month after the attack when four militants, thought to be Taliban, stormed the AUAF compound located on a busy street in the western part of the Afghan capital.

According to police, a suicide car bomber breached the university walls on 24 August while other militants stormed the campus with indiscriminate firing. The deadly 10-hour assault ended early the next day leaving at least 13 people dead, including 7 young students.

After the carnage in August, the university announced it had ‘temporarily suspended’ operations. The university has been closed since.

Babrak Yosufzai, a young journalist and language student at the AUAF, believes the attack on AUAF was well planned and was aimed at the future of the country. “Those studying at the American University are the leaders of tomorrow; the enemy of this country wants to scare them away from seeking knowledge and wisdom,” he said.

Security expert

The appointment of Sedney, a security expert and former diplomat, has attracted some comment from experts on the region, as his predecessor’s experience was mainly in running international institutions in the Middle East.

It comes in the wake of reports that a US special operations force searching for two AUAF professors kidnapped from their car while returning from classes in Kabul on 7 August, had raided a compound in Jalalabad, resulting in a gun battle with militants, according to US defence sources.

However, the kidnapped professors – Kevin King, an American, and Timothy Weeks, an Australian citizen – were not found at the location. A second raid was sanctioned the next day. The raids were confirmed but the dates, thought to have been just days after the 7 August kidnapping, were not revealed in a Pentagon statement on 8 September.

“The appointment [of Sedney] seems to suggest that to better protect staff and students, a good understanding of the situation on the ground and access to information networks that might help in locating the professors, is required,” said a US academic familiar with Afghanistan, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It also suggests that the university is taking the issue of security very seriously indeed, including the need to tap into intelligence.”

Masooma Ahmadi, 25, a business student present during the horrific incident, recalled haunting memories saying she still struggles to overcome the trauma of that evening.

“Like all students of the American University of Afghanistan, I am afraid and uncertain as it is not clear if our university would reopen or not. If the plan is to reopen it, then how will security be ensured to avoid any future attacks? If they [the administration] have decided against it [reopening] then what would happen to our studies?” she told University World News.

However, the university also announced it is has already started the process of repairing the damage caused by the attack so that the campus can reopen.

To reassure concerned students, the university administration announced that rumours that the university will close down were completely untrue.

Masooma said these messages did help overcome the initial panic. “Many students are close to the graduation period; this semester was their final semester. Now we are all worried, we have heard that the university might not reopen before January,” she said.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has pledged government resources to improve security at educational institutions in the country. General Abdul Rahman Rahimi, chief of the Afghan National Police in Kabul, told University World News that based on the president’s directives, special measures have been put in place to ensure security at the university.