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American Institute of Afghanistan Studies moves to BU

CAS anthropology chairman is new president

Thomas Barfield. Photo by Fred Sway

As President Bush made a surprise visit to Afghanistan this week — the first by an American president since 1959 — the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies (AIAS) made a much-anticipated journey from North Carolina to Boston.

The AIAS, housed at Duke University since its founding in 2003, formally moved its administrative headquarters to Boston on March 1, five months after Thomas Barfield, the chairman of the anthropology department in the College of Arts and Sciences, was named the institute’s president. As interest in the history, politics, and culture of Afghanistan has grown dramatically since September 11, Barfield says, the role of the AIAS is to support that interest and ensure that scholarship continues to grow.

“We’re very interested in creating a new generation of scholars in Afghanistan,” he says. “The people who did their work there did it 30 years ago. One of our questions is how we reinvigorate, re-create, a network of younger scholars who will take over this work and expand it.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Barfield says, academic interest in Afghanistan disappeared, then reemerged “with a vengeance” in 2001. The challenge for academics, he says, is to sustain the research opportunities even when popular interest wanes. To that end, AIAS serves as a clearinghouse of sorts for scholars, helping them obtain governmental or private funding for research in a variety of areas, ranging from politics and economics to archaeology and mythology.

Currently, Barfield and other AIAS administrators are lobbying to get Afghanistan recognized by the Fulbright Program, which does not give grants to U.S. citizens for study in the country because it is considered too dangerous. He is also working with the National Endowment for the Humanities on its Rediscovering Afghanistan initiative, which invites grant applications from American scholars interested in cultural studies.

“The public will become interested in something for legitimate reasons, but one of the things you have to realize is that just because you have a demand for information doesn’t mean you can get it in a year,” Barfield says. “By promoting scholarship and training people over the long term, we have this knowledge that is essentially important for the future.”