Hansen: Amid the strife of Afghanistan, UNO prof in Kabul sees ray of hope - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 6:37 am
Hansen: Amid the strife of Afghanistan, UNO prof in Kabul sees ray of hope

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.”

OWH Columnists
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.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1064, matthew.hansen@owh.com

twitter.com/redcloud_scribe

Contact the writer: Matthew Hansen

matthew.hansen@owh.com    |   402-444-1064    |  

Matthew Hansen is a metro columnist who writes roughly three columns a week focusing on all things Omaha.

Intoxicated man with pellet gun climbs billboard's scaffold; is arrested
Last day of 2014 Legislature: Praise, passage of a last few bills and more on mountain lions
'The war is not over,' Chambers says, but legislative session about is
A recap of what got done — and what didn't — in the 2014 legislative session
PAC funded by Senate candidate Ben Sasse's great-uncle releases Shane Osborn attack ad
Teen killed at Gallagher Park was shot in head as he sat in SUV, friend who was wounded says
When judge asks, Nikko Jenkins says ‘I killed them’
New UNO center strengthens ties between campus, community
Threat found in Millard West bathroom deemed 'not credible'
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
Nebrasks health officials to advertise jobs via drive-thru
Coral Walker named Omaha police officer of the year
Sarah Palin, Mike Lee coming to Nebraska for Ben Sasse rally
Prescription drug drop-off is April 26
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Rather than doing $250K in repairs, owner who lives in lot behind 94-year-old house in Dundee razes it
NB 30th Street lane closed
State Patrol, Omaha police conduct vehicle inspections
Bernie Kanger formally promoted to Omaha fire chief
U.S. House incumbents have deeper pockets than their challengers
Nancy's Almanac, April 17, 2014: Trees save money
Ex-Iowan behind landmark free speech case recounts story in Bellevue
Gov. Heineman signs water bill; sponsor calls it 'landmark legislation'
Senate candidate Shane Osborn to include anti-tax activist Norquist in telephone town hall
Kelly: New $24M UNO center embodies spirit of newlywed crash victim
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Kelly: Creighton's McDermotts put good faces on an Omaha tradition
A comical roast Wednesday night in Omaha brought fans of Creighton basketball laughter by the bucketful. This time it was McJokes, not McBuckets, that entertained the Bluejay crowd.
Breaking Brad: At least my kid never got stuck inside a claw machine
We need a new rule in Lincoln. If your kid is discovered inside the claw machine at a bowling alley, you are forever barred from being nominated for "Mother of the Year."
Breaking Brad: How many MECA board members can we put in a luxury suite?
As a stunt at the Blue Man Group show, MECA board members are going to see how many people they can stuff into one luxury suite.
Kelly: New $24M UNO center embodies spirit of newlywed crash victim
Jessica Lutton Bedient was killed by a drunken driver at age 26 in 2010. Thursday, the widowed husband and other family members will gather with others at the University of Nebraska at Omaha to dedicate a permanent memorial to Jessica.
Breaking Brad: How much would you pay for a corn dog?
The Arizona Diamondbacks have a new concession item: a $25 corn dog. For that kind of money, it should be stuffed with Bitcoin.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Dr. Welbes Natural Health Clinic
$129 for 2 LipoLaser Sessions with Additional Complimentary Services ($605 value)
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »