Prism Magazine - February 2003
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Down & Out in Afghanistan
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Down & Out in Afghanistan

- By Thomas K. Grose    

Engineering has hit rock bottom in this war-ravaged nation, leaving educators anguishing over how to train desperately needed engineers when the nation's schools are on life support.

Kabul, Photo by Robert NickelsbergIf ever a country was in desperate need of engineers, it is Afghanistan. More than 20 years of near constant warfare—not to mention the legacy of neglect left by the Taliban's repressive five-year regime—has left the landlocked, Central Asian nation in tatters. For all intents and purposes, it has no infrastructure to speak of. "The country is in bad shape. Everything needs to be built again from scratch, and all projects and buildings need engineers," especially civil engineers, explains M. Saleh Keshawarz, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Hartford, who has traveled to Afghanistan repeatedly in the last year. The areas requiring urgent attention are transportation, irrigation and agriculture, sewage and water systems, communications, and power generation. "And engineers are needed in all these fields." With its landscape dominated by mountains and deserts, good roads and bridges were a rarity in Afghanistan before the conflicts began. Now most are totally devastated. The national highway system needs a complete overhaul. There is no functioning rail network. And 90 percent of the country has no electricity. But in a war-torn county where there's an abundance of misery and land mines, where life's necessities are in scarce supply, it's not surprising there's also a critical shortage of engineers.

Toward assisting Afghanistan in easing that dilemma, American engineering educators are trying to help its two main universities—Herat University and Kabul University—resurrect their tottering engineering programs. Herat is located in western Afghanistan and Kabul University is in the nation's capital some 400 miles away.

Keshawarz—with the support of Hartford and at the request of the local Afghan government—is on a mission to overhaul, update, and streamline the engineering program at Herat, which is now on life support. Hartford also wants to help retrain Herat's engineering teachers. Retraining teachers is also what the University of Purdue, in Indiana, has in mind. Educators from Purdue recently started a distance-education program to upgrade the skills of the faculty at Kabul University's moribund engineering school. "The biggest need will be in civil engineering," says Ray Eberts, an associate professor of industrial engineering and director of continuing engineering education at Purdue. Eberts led a small team that visited Kabul in early December to evaluate the state of the school.

What they found there was a campus in shambles. Although rubble caused by endless bombardments had mostly been cleared away, Kabul University's buildings are badly damaged, and no real restoration has yet to begin. No building is heated, and many rooms have no lights or electricity. Physically, Herat is in better shape because it's in an area spared from heavy fighting, says Keshawarz, who was also there in December. But lighting and electricity is intermittent and supplies are few.

Certainly, demand for engineering degrees in Afghanistan is high. Between 1995 and 2001, enrollment in Herat's civil engineering program nearly doubled, from 50 to 92, making civil engineering the second most popular major after medicine at the school. And there's been an appreciable influx of women students, too. That's particularly important in Afghanistan, because the Taliban banned women from the workplace and the schoolroom. Kabul's engineering school recently received four times as many applications from students as there were slots available. Of course, one reason may be that an engineer in Afghanistan can earn around $150 a month—10 times the amount a typical government worker earns. But while budding Afghan engineers are attracted by the relatively fat salaries they may eventually earn, they're also motivated by a genuine desire to rebuild their homeland. Keshawarz, who interviewed some recent Herat graduates, notes, "I couldn't believe how enthusiastic they were. They were excited to see their work being built."

But all the updating, retraining, overhauling, and streamlining in the world won't help the two Afghan engineering colleges if a lack of money forces them to severely curtail operations. And that is a distinct possibility. For the time being, Afghanistan's federal and local governments don't have the economic wherewithal to support the schools. Herat has managed to limp along thanks to financial support from NOVIB, a private Dutch relief agency that parceled its funds through the CHA, or Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, a local charity. But that money is about to dry up, and replacement funds have yet to be found. "NOVIB's rationale is that it has too many things on its plate, and that the government should ask international groups for money," Keshawarz says. The University of Hartford has petitioned the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Asian Development Bank for money, but as of early January, it had had no success.

Keshawarz asked the U.S. Department of Defense for help, as well, but was rejected. He's now hoping the State Department may provide some funds. In the meantime, the local governor and the federal Afghan government have pledged to pool scarce resources and subsidize the program to the tune of $300 per month. That small stipend may be enough for now to keep members of Herat's financially strapped faculty from making good on threats to quit. Kabul is in worse financial straits; it hasn't had adequate funding for some time. Although Purdue obtained $100,000 from USAID to launch its distance-education program, it could be trying to train teachers who have no place to teach. Eberts says one possible source of money may be the World Bank. And Kabul may also seek donations from the private sector, he adds.

Both Keshawarz and Eberts shake their heads in wonder at what they see as the shortsightedness of not funding engineering education in a country so desperately in need of engineers. "USAID (and the rest of the donor community) says it is not a priority at this time, and that amazes me," Keshawarz says. "If it is not a priority, then how can they do reconstruction?" Eberts concurs: "In some ways, it's mind-boggling. Education ensures that they can help themselves."

After the war in Bosnia and Kosovo, U.S. financial aid to that region amounted to an average of $240 per person, Eberts notes. In Afghanistan, the figure is about $45 per head. And because money is tight, what little there is gets spent on food so people don't starve. Eberts says U.S. policymakers seem to have a short attention span, noting that the last time the warring factions that comprise Afghanistan were left to their own devices, the Taliban gained control. And, of course, the Taliban turned the country into one big training ground for al-Qaeda, the terror group responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. If the population isn't properly educated, Eberts fears, "it could all blow up again." Says Eberts: "If there are no teachers, then by default the mullahs are the only educators, and that can breed fanaticism and intolerance."

If money is found to help keep the schools open, here is what Hartford and Purdue have planned to resurrect the engineering programs at the universities of Herat and Kabul:



The engineering college at Herat has its antecedents at Kabul University, where an engineering program was established in 1956 by the University of Wyoming. In 1963, the United States Engineering Team (USET)—which had links to a number of American schools, including Carnegie-Mellon, Georgia Tech, Rice, Notre Dame, and Purdue—assumed operational control of the program, and in 1970 a five-year civil engineering curriculum was established. The University of Nebraska took over the program in 1974, but that relationship was severed when communists came to power in Afghanistan a few years later. The Soviet-backed government closed the college in 1984 because of its close links to the United States. A small group of Kabul professors established an engineering program while in exile in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1987, with financial help from USAID. That program relocated to Herat University in 1995, where it is now the engineering college.

Keshawarz, 49, a native of Kabul, is a 1978 graduate of Kabul University's engineering college. (He has a master's from Tennessee State University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma. He has taught at Hartford since 1988 and was chairman of the civil engineering department from 1996 to last spring.) He has been active in Afghan reconstruction efforts for the last decade, and was asked by CHA to review the program at Herat and recommend changes in the curriculum.

Given the urgent need for engineers in Afghanistan, Keshawarz's priority is to streamline the program from five to four years. "The idea is to get more engineers out in the field as quickly as possible," he says. Moreover the program has not been overhauled since the 1970s. "You should change a curriculum on a regular basis, lighten it up a bit," he says. Many of his recommendations not only reflect the need to graduate more engineers, but changes made in U.S. curriculums in the intervening years. One fast way to shorten the program would be to drop the requirement for six months of practical training. "It is not a necessity, given the circumstances. Graduates can get on-the-job training." Other nips and tucks would mostly be made by combining courses, like thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, statics and dynamics, and a couple of physics courses. One addition Keshawarz wants to make is a computer course, which does not now exist at Herat.

Eventually, the University of Hartford wants to offer refresher courses to Herat faculty. Keshawarz says the teaching staff is relatively strong, but only one member—a math instructor—has a master's; the rest all have bachelor's degrees. He anticipates a combination of distance learning and on-site training at both Hartford and Herat will be employed to re-educate the faculty.

Given the financial problems, the years of war, and the neglect of the Taliban, the facilities at Herat are not great. They are old and in need of rebuilding. There are physics and electrical labs, but no computer lab. There's no library, and textbooks are as rare as a cool breeze in the Afghan summer. To compensate, professors make photocopies of their books and notes. There's no equipment for the surveying class, so students learn only theory. "That makes it very inefficient. Those are major problems," Keshawarz admits. He has finished his report of recommended curriculum changes. Its implementation depends on the hoped for influx of money. It wouldn't take much more to allow the college to reflower. He estimates that $30,000 would pay faculty salaries for a year and $100,000 would cover the cost of new books and materials. Says Keshawarz of the amount: "It's peanuts."



" Before the Soviet invasion, Kabul University was really a gem," Eberts says sadly, reflecting on the grim state of the school and its engineering college today. If it fared badly under communist rule; it did no better under the Taliban. There was no emphasis on education during the Taliban's harsh regime; on the contrary, education was de-emphasized. "One way to control people is to make sure they don't get educated," says Eberts.

Purdue's immediate, short-term focus is to establish a distance-education program to re-train and offer further education to Kabul's faculty, which is also almost entirely comprised of undergraduate degree-holders. Once the faculty has been trained and is comfortable with e-teaching, it's hoped that Kabul, which offers civil engineering, will eventually use distance learning to teach students from across Afghanistan. "The longer-term plan is to build a distance-education center in Kabul that could be used to reach more remote parts of the country," Eberts explains. It's thought that distance learning is a good solution for bringing higher education to isolated parts of the rugged country. Initially, Purdue wants to help 20 Kabul engineering teachers earn master's degrees without having to leave the country. Eberts says that bringing them to the United States for classes would be counterproductive because the absences would decimate the school's remaining teaching staff. At one time, Kabul could brag of having 70 engineering professors; today it has 40. While Purdue has the $100,000 in USAID seed money to set up a pilot program, it estimates that a full-fledged distance-learning operation will cost around $1 million.

When Eberts and his team visited Kabul in December, they took along five laptops and two PCs to donate to the school. Like Herat, Kabul had no computers before that. This spring the professors want to ship another 40 to 50 used computers to Kabul for the program (they're machines the Indiana school was planning to replace anyway). Initially, it will distribute lessons using CD-ROMs, but eventually wants to disseminate material via the Internet. That, too, could be problematic in a country that's still conservatively Muslim. The Internet gives users access to all sorts of material—including pornography—that's banned there. "We're not sure yet how to deal with that," Eberts says. One possible solution is to rely on an intranet system. Another is to put someone in charge to control usage of the computers to ensure that no one accesses nonsanctioned material. In April, it is bringing five faculty members to Purdue for a monthlong training session on distance-learning techniques and computer maintenance.

Also in Kabul is the Polytechnic, an engineering college launched by the former Soviet Union during its years of occupation. The minister of education is suggesting that the engineering schools be merged, which is not a bad idea, Eberts says. But he also notes that the Soviet school's curriculum is more technology focused, and is light in the civil engineering training that is more desperately needed. Both colleges, even more than Herat, need curriculum overhauls. Students now take 125 separate courses for an undergraduate degree, three times as many as required in the United States. Purdue may convene a conference of expatriate Afghan engineers to recommend changes.

The environment at Kabul University is "pretty dismal," Eberts says. Power supplies are iffy; indeed, at one point all copper wiring on the campus had been stripped and sold. Walls are pockmarked with bullet holes, and most windows are broken. There is little or no equipment in its labs. About $20,000 of the USAID money will be used to upgrade the facilities. "We're not even sure (the students) are getting an engineering education. There is certainly a lot of religious education," Eberts notes. When his team was there, the students and teachers had been sent home because the students had rioted over the lack of heat and dorm rooms. The school is due to reopen in March. And while it's a good sign that available places in the engineering program were oversubscribed by prospective students, the school overestimated its resources and admitted more students than it can handle. Despite the great need and a lot of willpower to make it happen, it remains uncertain if the gem that was once Kabul University will ever regain its luster.


Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at