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Afghan Students Reach Kyrgyzstan After a Risky Journey

The American University of Central Asia, above, and the Kyrgyzstan government recently arranged to evacuate students in Afghanistan by car, bus and plane after the Taliban takeover of the country in August, so that they could enroll in the Bishkek-based institution and continue to study. The evacuation took place over five weeks and included nine overland crossings and two flights from Kabul to Islamabad and four flights to Bishkek. This photo, taken in 2015, features then-United States Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at an opening ceremony for the university. STATE DEPARTMENT 

Nearly 200 students from Afghanistan, escaping the Taliban’s tightening grip on education, have been safely evacuated from Kabul under an ambitious plan led by the American University of Central Asia and the Kyrgyzstan government. About 60 percent of the students, undergraduates and graduates, are women, according to the university.

“Yes, we have largely succeeded,” David Lakhdhir, chairman of the university board of trustees, wrote in an email to PassBlue on Oct. 12. “We now have almost 300 Afghan students at AUCA. About 180 of these students have been evacuated from Afghanistan over the past 30 days, first in cars and small buses overland to Islamabad, and then from there to Bishkek by plane.”

The overland road trip from Kabul, the capital, to the eastern-border crossing into Pakistan at Torkham, posed dangers as the students journeyed from September through early this month. The route followed the historic Grand Trunk Road that has for centuries connected Kabul to the northern-tier cities of Pakistan and India through the notorious high-mountain Khyber Pass. On the Afghanistan side of the route for the students, there were considerable dangers around Torkham and other territory where undisciplined and armed Taliban fighters, smugglers and drug traffickers roamed.

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“Most of the transfers were successful, but there were setbacks,” Lakhdhir said. “Some students were beaten by the Taliban, although fortunately these were isolated cases. Several tested positive for Covid and had to be quarantined in Pakistan. All are safe now.

“What made all of this possible was the issuance, by the Kyrgyz government, of visas for all these students on compassionate grounds, and then the cooperation of the Pakistan government in issuing transit passes, as most of the students traveled through Pakistan,” wrote Lakhdhir, a London-based partner and international law expert at the firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.

“Although we were able to arrange appropriate travel documents for all of the students, these transfers were undertaken after Kabul was under Taliban control, and after the US forces relinquished HKIA [Hamid Karzai International Airport], so they carried significant risk,” he added, referring to the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on Aug. 15.

With the partial reopening of the Kabul airport now, two more groups of students have been flown to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, avoiding the overland route. Among them are United States-supported “embassy scholars” from the American University of Afghanistan. Both are part of a group of American universities supported by the Open Society Foundations in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, in partnership with Bard College in New York State.

The evacuation of students from Kabul was planned and carried out in consultation with the US and Kyrgyz governments. It was led by a team coordinated by Jonathan Becker, interim president of the American University of Central Asia and director of the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. Students at the Central Asia university who qualify are eligible for a Bard College degree. Meanwhile, as they seek training in the arts, science and professions in Bishkek, they are part of a generation of successful young Afghans lost to a country whose talents are most needed.

Pakistan is a longtime supporter of the Taliban, who have a large presence around the southwest city of Quetta, yet the country has recently been helping Afghans such as the Bishkek students escape harsh Taliban rule. Under Prime Minister Imran Khan, Pakistan has been promoting an engagement policy with the Taliban to maintain influence in Afghanistan at the expense of India. Khan’s ancestral roots are also bound in the northwest Khyber Puktunwala province, which shares ethnicity and culture with parts of Afghanistan and thus the Taliban.

More Afghan students could be tempted to head for Bishkek.

“I now have a bit of a problem,” Lakhdhir wrote in his Oct. 12 message to PassBlue. “We had expected to have about 200 [Afghan] students, and arranged funding for about that number, but we now have about 300, so I need to find additional funds to support the additional students we were able to assist. But we had to do this. This is a life-changing event for many if not all of these students. It has been very exciting to see AUCA play this timely and critical role.”

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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