Fulbright board member condemns Afghanistan pullout

State Department ‘circumvented Fulbright board’ to shutter programme, putting applicants in ‘danger’, says Heather Nauert

二月 14, 2022
Afghans crowd at the airport as US soldiers stand guard in Kabul in August 2021
Source: Getty

The US State Department’s decision to cancel the Fulbright scholarship programme in Afghanistan was taken over the head of the Fulbright board and leaves scores of students at risk of lethal punishment by the Taliban, according to a board member.

The State Department cited “significant barriers impeding our ability to provide a safe exchange experience to future participants” when it halted its Fulbright foreign scholarship programme in Afghanistan last month. According to reports, roughly 140 semi-finalists in the country are affected, many of whom rejected other chances to leave Afghanistan in the hope of securing a postgraduate fellowship in the US.

Heather Nauert, the member of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board responsible for Afghanistan, said that she had learned about the termination through a news article, and that board members had been taken aback.

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“We are disappointed and disturbed by the State Department’s decision to circumvent the board of directors and others who have a clear stake in the programme,” she told Times Higher Education.

“Under federal law, the board is legally charged with establishing all the policies and procedures for the Fulbright programme. Establishing policies and procedures would obviously include pulling out of a country entirely.”

Ms Nauert, who was appointed to the board by Donald Trump and served as State Department spokeswoman during his presidency, said that she was worried about the safety of those who had already applied.

“If our Fulbright scholars remain in Afghanistan…they may be hunted down and killed as a result of the Western-style education that they already received,” she said.

Afghan semi-finalists told THE that they were bitterly disappointed by the move.

“It was really crushing,” said Sahar Sekandari, an applicant who hoped to study data analytics under the programme. “I even had the opportunity to leave the country after [the Taliban takeover in] August but I thought it’s better to go to an education programme rather than go to another country and have life in limbo.”

Azizullah Janish, another semi-finalist, said he was “shocked”. Like others, he turned down opportunities to escape Afghanistan – including, in his case, an unconditional offer from a UK-based university – pinning his hopes on the Fulbright.

“They assured us that the programme would be continued…[and] talked about how US universities are flexible in hard times,” he said. “How can they do such things in the middle of chaos in Afghanistan?”

Ms Nauert noted that even if Afghanistan remained under Taliban control, other workarounds may be possible for the Fulbright scheme, which supports about 4,000 international students globally each year. It continues to support students from “politically complicated and even dangerous countries” such as Ukraine and Venezuela, she noted.

Margaret Chai Maloney, another board member, agreed. “We certainly hope as soon as possible that we could have a programme be reinstated,” she said.

The State Department hasn’t ruled out restarting the Afghanistan programme, a spokesman said, but he didn’t say when – or under which conditions – it might do so.

“Once future conditions allow for us to again safely support Fulbright opportunities for Afghan students, we will again invite applications,” the spokesman said.

But Ms Nauert was not hopeful. “I believe that the programme will remain dead as long as the Taliban is in power and as long as Washington officials remain afraid to set demands and think creatively,” she said. “I hope I’m wrong.”



Print headline: Fulbright’s Afghanistan pullout ‘puts students’ lives in danger’



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