Comment: Rebuilding geology faculty in Afghanistan

by John (Jack) Shroder
Friday, January 30, 2015

In December 2014, the U.S. ended combat operations in Afghanistan after 13 years. However, a residual force of nearly 10,000 troops remains in the country to continue training Afghan security forces and supporting counterterrorism operations. They will be joined by a team of geology and mining engineering professors, who will be mentoring the next generation of faculty at Kabul Polytechnic University (KPU), even as they search for new funding to keep the project going.

In early 2014, the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business Stability Operations (TFBSO) in Afghanistan contracted with the mining program at Missouri University of Science and Technology as well as the geology and Afghanistan Studies Center programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO). As an emeritus professor in the geology program at UNO, and the senior research scholar at the Center for Afghanistan Studies, I was asked to head up the geology education effort at KPU.

We face numerous challenges. Even prior to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Western Coalition forces in late 2001, higher education in Afghanistan was largely nonexistent.

This was not always the case. In the 1970s, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the U.S. each invested considerable financial resources to help establish universities — specifically, the Soviet-built KPU and, in the U.S.’s case, the Western-oriented Kabul University (KU), both of which had a number of science- and engineering-oriented programs.

However, in the decade following the Soviet invasion in 1979, education fell by the wayside as war raged in the country, and schools and universities were reduced to shambles and rubble. Both KPU and KU suffered extensive damage under the U.S.-supported (but anti-intellectual) mujahedeen resistance during the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s. The depredations against education continued in the 1990s, as the mujahedeen morphed into the Taliban and the country continued its long descent into dysfunction.

The formerly well-developed facilities at KPU seem to have been the most damaged because of their connections with communism. Classrooms, laboratories and a museum that once contained maps and geological samples from across the country were completely destroyed. Anything of value, including books, journals and microscopes, was looted, and all labeled rock and mineral reference samples were thrown into heaps, and their labels burned. All that remained were a few faculty members who had earned doctorates in the Soviet Union. Education continued to stagnate through the late 1990s.

The invasion of Afghanistan by Western Coalition forces in late 2001 dramatically changed the equation once again, as the Taliban retreated in disarray. In the comparative peace that prevailed shortly after the Western invasion in 2001, several Afghan faculty members returned to KPU and (without pay) began rebuilding their departments to again educate students. Some returned from abroad; others had remained in the country, hoping that things would eventually get better.

However, the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003 pulled vital forces from Afghanistan. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Defense formed the TFBSO to revitalize Iraq’s oil and gas industry.

In 2009, just as Afghanistan was beginning to fall apart again under renewed advances by the Taliban, the TFBSO was moved from Iraq to Afghanistan. The TFBSO’s job was to assess whether natural resource extractions (the country has an estimated $1 trillion to $3 trillion in mineral wealth) might help restabilize the Afghan government, an idea that I, and others, have repeatedly advocated since the early 1980s.

TFBSO first visited KPU in 2010, but it took another three years for the idea to emerge to help elevate the level of basic geology and mining education there. In 2014, as the Western Coalition planned its departure from Afghanistan, TFBSO formulated a plan to rebuild professorial confidence and capability at KPU. The task force engaged the Missouri and Nebraska teams, as well as geologists from the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, to prepare for the anticipated mining boom and expected growth in geology enrollment. (This growth is already being observed.)

In early summer and again in fall 2014, two U.S. teams traveled to Kabul as part of the TFBSO effort to assess KPU (all the while under rigorous security). Selected KPU faculty from geology, hydrogeology and mining were brought to Turkey and the U.S. for special training as well. Weekly online conferences were held to monitor progress, which focused on developing the faculty and the curriculum, measuring in-class teaching effectiveness, assessing program quality and scholarly merit, advising and mentoring students, and building research programs.

The emphasis of the program so far has been on revising courses in historical geology, plate tectonics and geohydrology for the geology program. In the mining program, courses in surface-mine design and surface mining methods and equipment are being revised for the open-pit mining program, and courses in mine safety and health, and mining as a business are being revised for the underground mining program.

In the future, another very important area of focus will be hydrology and hydrogeology, as Afghanistan learns to more effectively manage its water resources, especially those that cross borders. The potential for water conflicts looms large as the nation-states of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region learn how to cope with natural hazards like floods, droughts and avalanches, and to use their water more wisely.

With the Pentagon’s role in the project completed as of December last year, UNO will take over leadership with funding from the U.S. Institute of Peace and other granting agencies.

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