After days of waiting in line at Kabul International Airport, people who had worked side-by-side with Washington State University faculty were turned away.
Under the US Refugee Admissions Program, Afghan nationals who worked with WSU on its English learning or agricultural outreach projects in the country could apply for refugee status in any country with a US embassy, allowing them the chance to resettle in the United States.
Though the US Air Force evacuated 125,000 American citizens, third-country nationals, and Afghans—one of the largest air evacuations in history—only a handful of the 110 people that contacted WSU for help were able to leave before the United States withdrew from Afghanistan on August 30.
By September 5, the Taliban stopped allowing evacuees to leave on planes. With the borders closed, many Afghans went into hiding to escape punishment for “un-Islamic activities,” such as working with foreign entities and educating women.
“It’s really personal when you know people,” says Scott Avery, director of graduate assessment at WSU and a former evaluation specialist for the Afghan eQuality Alliances and eLearning English Support projects. “We would’ve probably gotten more out if we had more time.”
Paul Whitney, associate vice president of International Programs, says the outcome was gut-wrenching.
“Those people were given false hope and that’s crushingly depressing, but those people saw what hope looks like and maybe there will be another opportunity in their lifetime or their children’s lifetime,” he says. “The people of Afghanistan deserve better, and we would be delighted to help them again in the future.”
Avery, who helped gather documents to assist in the visa process for the people WSU had contacted, had two stints in Afghanistan between 2009 and 2012 where he aided the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to rebuild the Afghan higher education system.
“We trained hundreds of faculty members and thousands of students in computer and English language skills, especially young women,” Avery says. “The amount of information online in their local languages is really limited, so English was critical to having access to current information for their disciplines.”
Chris Pannkuk, former director of International Research and Development at WSU, first went to Afghanistan in 2002 to conduct soil and water research. Over the next 15 years, he developed and implemented more than ten projects to improve the Afghan government’s ability to deliver agricultural information to farmers. The last three projects with USAID funding were a partnership between four land-grant universities in addition to WSU: University of California Davis; University of Maryland; Purdue; and Texas A&M.
“What we were after is the capacity building of small-holding farmers to be more self-sufficient in agriculture production,” Pannkuk says. “We wanted farmers to be more resilient after we leave, and leaving Afghanistan in a better place.”
Oumarou Badini directed WSU’s Afghan Agricultural Extension programs for six years in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangahar, a province that shares a border with Pakistan.
“Despite dangers and the conflict-laden environment in which we were working, I left Afghanistan in 2017 with the feeling that we have contributed to a betterment of the most important resource in a country: the human resource,” Badini says. “But in the blink of an eye in 2021, everything seemed to be going downhill. The sentiment of loss and wasted time is still echoing in the minds of all those who participated in this endeavor.”
Retired administrator Mike Whiteman managed the guest house used by the five universities as their Kabul headquarters and oversaw program staff during WSU’s final three years in Afghanistan.
“We were trying to improve the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock’s ability to provide extension services across the country,” Whiteman says. “Most of the agents didn’t have a strong agriculture background, so they were trying to teach farmers things they didn’t really know themselves.”
The program’s location in rural Nangahar made it too risky for students to participate. But Whiteman says they didn’t face opposition from the Taliban.
“We were working in these areas that had huge security issues, but these farmers were benefitting from what we were doing, and we were left alone,” Whiteman says. “All I can do is hope that we had enough of an impact that what knowledge we left behind will have the momentum to perpetuate itself.”
Whitney says the work WSU did in Afghanistan, as well as its outreach work in Malawi and other countries, is in step with the university’s land-grant mission.
“We’re bringing the expertise of WSU to help solve problems around the world. Our students, our scholars, and the state of Washington benefitted from those experiences,” Whitney says. “I think WSU can be extremely proud of the work that was done there, that we helped improve the ability of Afghan farmers to feed themselves and their people.”
And though Afghanistan’s future seems bleak, Avery says the Afghan people are survivors above all.
“We met female faculty members who had gone through the Russian occupation, civil wars, the US invasion, and they were still there,” Avery says. “They were committed to making and building a better future for their country because they believed in their country and they believed in themselves.”