NANGARHAR, Afghanistan — The buildings on the campus of Nangarhar Islamic University are falling apart. The footpaths are not paved. There is a shortage of professors, electricity is intermittent, and the dormitories are overcrowded.
But across Afghanistan this rundown old setting has become famous as a thorn in the side of the government and its NATO allies. The young men educated here stage regular protests that often feature blocking one of the country's main highways and burning US flags.
Many have been arrested for alleged links to the insurgents, and critics even accuse them of supporting Al Qaeda. The students themselves, however, are proud of the reputation they have, insisting they are simply speaking out in defense of their religion and their country.
For them the university is a kind of mini-state, a place where they rule and a strict interpretation of Islam holds sway.
"Our enemy is not only America and the West; our enemy are oppressors wherever they are. If America leaves and our people are still oppressed we will protest and do anything we can to stop it," said Niamatullah, an engineering student.
Established in the early 1960s on the outskirts of Jalalabad city in eastern Afghanistan, this used to be the same as any other government-run university. The situation only really changed when the word “Islamic” was officially added to the name during the Taliban era, and then kept during the US-led occupation.
This apparently insignificant step had a profound impact, confirming a growing fundamentalism on the campus and attracting other like-minded individuals to join in pursuit of their higher education. An estimated 10,000 students are now enrolled here. These include women who, when GlobalPost visited, could be seen dressed conservatively in headscarves or burqas.
Niamatullah claimed he and his colleagues are accused of rebel links because they "are sensitive Muslims" who do not follow "corrupt paths." To illustrate his point, he gave one example of a female singer being invited to hold a concert at the university.
"We stood against it and we prevented it," he said. "Look, all the nation is with us, they support us and they want us. Only some Western minded men and women, and the media, call us insurgents."
Their reputation has been fueled by their willingness to oppose the United States and its allies louder and more militantly than the members of any other public institution.
In an article posted on the Taliban's website earlier this year, the university was described as "an invincible fort in the war of intellectuals." It called the students' regular demonstrations against the occupation "as worthy as the use of a gun."
The most recent of these involved them again blocking the main road connecting Jalalabad to Kabul in solidarity with an Afghan soldier believed to be awaiting execution. The solider is in a government prison for killing French troops in January.
Khodai Nazar Hamad is imam of the university mosque, and a sharia law student. Interviewed in his dorm room, he accused the national intelligence service of arresting his colleagues without sufficient evidence, and claimed ethnic divisions and social unrest plague other universities.
"Here we are all brothers. We do not care about stupid things, the only thing we care about is the injustice in our land and the injustice [imposed] on our people. So who are the problem, us or them?" he said.
The university has a total of 12 faculties — the majority of them on the main campus. Some students who spoke on condition of anonymity said members of the sharia law and engineering faculties carry the most influence, even intimidating professors who are viewed as liberals.
Mohammed Sabar, the university chancellor, is guarded by two policemen. He said "everything is normal" and "we all love each other." But he admitted that his predecessor narrowly escaped an assassination attempt three years ago.
"I accept there are some problems for us and the students but they are not as big as some elements claim," he said.
Sabar added that demonstrations were acceptable if they were not violent and did not block the highway for long periods of time.
Political unrest in universities is a particularly sensitive issue for the Afghan government.
Many of the leading figures in the series of conflicts that have shaken this country for more than 30 years first emerged as student activists in Kabul during the 1960s and 70s, when communism and Islamism were the competing ideologies.
Today the fundamentalists here in Nangarhar regard democracy and the West with similar disdain. They are determined to continue opposing the United States until it meets the same fate as the Soviet Union.
“We decided that we will always be on the side of truth and we will not be scared of these killers that drink our people’s blood and eat their flesh each night,” said Massoud Ahmadzai, a sharia law student.
“Stopping us means stopping a nation and I do not think it is possible to stop a nation from practicing its beliefs. They will fail when they are faced with us just as the Russians did.”
Fazelminallah Qazizai reported from Nangarhar and Chris Sands reported from Kabul.