Report

Afghanistan Braces for a Brain Drain

The Taliban are intent on driving out the very people they need to make the country governable.

By , the social media editor at Foreign Policy.
A full flight of 265 people are evacuated out of Kabul.
A full flight of 265 people are evacuated out of Kabul by the British Armed Forces in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 21. Ben Shread/MoD Crown Copyright/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

When Zarghona Roshan left Kabul in early August to visit family in Iran, she never imagined the Taliban would enter her home days later, beat and threaten her two brothers, and demand they divulge her whereabouts lest the group kill her entire family.

“I can’t believe that we would lose our whole country, our home. And now, my family is in danger,” she said, fighting back tears. “What should I do? There’s no flight [back to Kabul]. If I die, it’s my pleasure that I have to die with my family.”

Roshan, like so many former government employees, human rights activists, journalists, and other architects of civil society, faces nearly unprecedented danger. She was chief of staff for the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education under recently departed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled Kabul on Aug. 14 with nothing but the clothes on his back to seek refuge in the United Arab Emirates. The Taliban are going door to door to rob homes, assault those they deem a threat, and seek information about former government employees and those who worked for NATO and United Nations forces, among others.

When Zarghona Roshan left Kabul in early August to visit family in Iran, she never imagined the Taliban would enter her home days later, beat and threaten her two brothers, and demand they divulge her whereabouts lest the group kill her entire family.

“I can’t believe that we would lose our whole country, our home. And now, my family is in danger,” she said, fighting back tears. “What should I do? There’s no flight [back to Kabul]. If I die, it’s my pleasure that I have to die with my family.”

Roshan, like so many former government employees, human rights activists, journalists, and other architects of civil society, faces nearly unprecedented danger. She was chief of staff for the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education under recently departed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who fled Kabul on Aug. 14 with nothing but the clothes on his back to seek refuge in the United Arab Emirates. The Taliban are going door to door to rob homes, assault those they deem a threat, and seek information about former government employees and those who worked for NATO and United Nations forces, among others.

Roshan, like so many former government employees, human rights activists, journalists, and other architects of civil society, faces nearly unprecedented danger.

The crackdown comes after the Taliban took over Kabul on Aug. 15 after a lightning military campaign across the country that coincided with the U.S. decision to withdraw its last remaining troops. The problem for Afghanistan is the decimation of trained administrators, journalists, human rights advocates, and others leaves the country dangerously bereft of the kind of skills that will be needed to govern Afghanistan and fend off Taliban incursions into every sphere of life. 

“We are in the darker ages of ignorance,” Roshan said. “It is correct that the Taliban occupied Afghanistan, but there is no support from the nation because they are terrorists.”

Roshan is hardly alone. Zahra Mirzaei was forced to leave her position as president of the Afghan Midwives Association (AMA). That’s partly because she is Hazara, a minority ethnic group that has faced violence, persecution, and oppression from the Taliban and others. But her job also put her in the crosshairs of an insurgent group eager to roll back women’s rights. The AMA boasts more than 3,000 members across 34 provincial chapters and is crucial to the provision of medical services for women. Mirzaei fears that remaining a high-profile figure within the organization will be dangerous, yet leaving the country is too. Reports from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport show carnage and chaos as thousands of desperate Afghans storm the runways and fall victim to fatal stampedes.

“At this time, I cannot focus. That is the only option for me at this time—to leave the country, no matter where,” Mirzaei said.

Like Mirzaei, Bashir Ahmad Fatehi, the former head of the Afghan Anti-Corruption Commission, is Hazara. He tackled corruption cases linked to government officials and the private sector—50 in all since starting in December 2020. But since the seizure of Kabul, he has moved from safe house to safe house, sometimes to multiple locations per day, fearing the Taliban will find him and seek revenge. 

“I fear they will detain everyone who matters. There is no exception. It will take time, but know they have all the resources they need and all the time they need,” he said in an email.

The scope of the looming brain drain is all the starker given the gains that have been made in the 20 years since the Taliban were last overthrown. The Afghan media landscape was flourishing and, until recently, had the greatest press freedom in the region. Now the Taliban are shuttering outlets and silencing journalists. A similar setback could happen in education. When the United States invaded, there were just 900,000 students, almost all male. Today, that number has grown more than tenfold, and 2 out of every 5 students are girls, according to a U.S. Agency for International Development assessment. And more broadly, the last two decades have been good for Afghan women: A Brookings Institution report linked the post-Taliban era with increased rights, increased life expectancy, and increased social and economic growth among women.

The Taliban have just been handed the keys to one of the most powerful executives in the world.”

But one aspect of Afghanistan may have contributed to the speed of its collapse—and could prove a pitfall for the Taliban. Although fragmented regionally and ethnically and with little real governance provided by Kabul, on paper, Afghanistan is one of the most highly centralized states, with almost all power vested in the presidency in the country’s capital. The triumphant Taliban entry into the presidential palace was essentially game over.

“It means the Taliban have just been handed the keys to one of the most powerful executives in the world,” said Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, who is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. 

They may not use it. Initial Taliban plans for government envision a 12-man ruling council rather than a president, but the power will remain concentrated in the capital. And that could be a problem if the Taliban want to actually govern the country and stave off prolonged civil conflict with a younger population weaned on freedoms but continually disappointed by the Ghani government and its predecessors. The age-old debate over how much power to devolve to the provinces is again a live issue in Afghanistan, with a group in charge singularly ill equipped to grapple with it.

“If [the group] wants to be able to deliver to people, it has to accommodate. People want to be treated with dignity and with value, and they don’t want to be preyed upon,” Murtazashvili said.

Zubaida Akbar, a human rights activist who immigrated to the United States from Kabul in 2018 and still has family in Afghanistan, shares those fears. She believes the new generation of Afghans born since 2001 represent a world that is far more connected, educated, and audacious—but inevitably disappointed by its government. “The Taliban will not be able to respond to the needs and demands of these people,” she said.

“They have hopes and dreams. Those dreams will be shattered because not all of them will be able to leave Afghanistan. What I see going to happen is chaos: People who are left behind will suffer.”

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk

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