The Omaha professor gave his newest pupils what seemed the easiest of homework assignments.
How many people live in your country?
Look it up, professor Chris Allen said. Bring the number to class.
Except Allen was teaching at Kabul University, where the University of Nebraska at Omaha runs a U.S.-funded grant to improve the quality of journalism education. Except the country in question is Afghanistan.
The next day, half of the Kabul University class believed the Afghan population to be 28 million. That was the official number the last time a national census was taken in 1998. And half of the class believed the number to be 31 million — that's the roughly estimated total now.
Each side was sort of right. Each side was kind of wrong. The class argued about the number for nearly a half-hour.
“We had a hotly contested debate,” Allen said.
If we have learned one thing about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, it is that nothing — not even a number — is as straightforward as it seems.
Allen, a veteran UNO professor, volunteered to trek to Kabul in April to lecture to Afghan college students, teach Afghan journalism teachers and meet with real-life Afghan journalists. He did so at his own potential peril: Talking about investigative journalism and freedom of the press at a university that endured massive riots last year, inside a country where journalists are often threatened and kidnapped, is not exactly the easy road to summer vacation.
It is the latest example of a local man or woman trying to make a bit of difference in Afghanistan, only to watch as the success they do have is overshadowed by the larger failure of the American experiment in Afghanistan.
Just after Allen returned to Omaha, President Hamid Karzai confirmed that the Central Intelligence Agency has been delivering money to Karzai's office for the past decade. News reports say the CIA has dropped off tens of millions of dollars in cash in bags.
Some of these bags of money were, in turn, funneled to warlords, drug kingpins and even Taliban leaders, according to the New York Times. People Karzai needs to keep happy, for one reason or another. People that the U.S. military and the coalition forces are supposed to be fighting against.
“You ask the Afghan students about the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and I'd bet you a month's salary that conversation goes quickly to corruption,” said Allen when I met with him just before the CIA bags of cash story broke. “It's the first thing they bring up.”
I have previously written about a U.S. Army colonel who courageously fought the Afghan drug trade year after year. I have previously written about UNO's Center for Afghanistan Studies, which has spent decades battling to improve education inside Afghanistan. I have written about hardworking diplomats and well-meaning nonprofits and dozens and dozens of Nebraska and Iowa troops who have deployed to Afghanistan and returned in flag-draped caskets.
The mistakes of the larger machine — things like CIA bags of cash that end up in the hands of drug lords — threaten to blot out the hard work, a total eclipse of the Afghan sun.
And yet, if you stare hard enough, you can still see the faintest rays of sunlight somehow getting through.
Take Allen. He stayed in the UNO Guest House, which is a modest residence in a modest neighborhood with no heat and no water pressure. (I can vouch for its relative modesty. I stayed there in 2006.) He hitched a ride to Kabul University with Raheem Yaseer, the assistant director of UNO's Center for Afghanistan Studies, who served as Allen's guide and translator.
In the mornings they arrived at Kabul University in a Toyota with a cracked windshield. At the front gate they got frisked by men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles. The school has been on lockdown since last year, when student rioting forced university leaders to close the campus before finals week.
Allen taught a morning class filled with upperclassmen and an afternoon class full of freshmen. They mostly didn't speak English, and he doesn't speak a sentence of Dari.
He lectured on the technical: How to shoot video, how to write a TV script, social networking's role in the modern media.
But he also covered the weighty: The importance of investigative journalism in the United States and how it has swung elections and toppled presidents. The role of the press in a democratic society, where the media at its best can expose corruption and stupidity alike.
Allen told the students: If you shine a light in a dark corner, the cockroaches scatter. The cockroaches hate the light.
“They really liked that,” he says of the students. “They understood that.”
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Allen came back to Omaha with two distinct memories of Kabul.
The first is from the city.
He walks the neighborhood with Yaseer. He peers into the packed markets. He eats at a restaurant, and three Afghan women who are celebrating a birthday bring over their leftover cake. Sir, would you like a slice?
“There is life in Afghanistan,” he says. “It is a real city with real people who go to school and go to work. Every day for them is not war.”
The second snapshot is from Kabul University. He is lecturing, and he looks out over the two dozen students in one of his courses, and he has a feeling that he never had in 27 years of teaching at UNO and elsewhere.
These students aren't just into the lecture. They are actually leaning forward. They are viscerally desperate for more.
“It's like they were trying to suck the lecture out of me,” Allen says. “They were so eager for someone to engage them ... just someone to show up.”
All we can do is hope that the journalism students of Kabul University remember that feeling, even as they are beaten down by the ever-present strife and the ever-present anxiety about 2014, when Karzai leaves office and the U.S. military leaves Afghanistan.
All we can do is hope that when they heard about the CIA bags of cash — first reported by an American media outlet, by the way — they remembered UNO professor Chris Allen. We have to hope that they see those faintest rays of sunlight, too.
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