Dispatch

‘I Wanted to Stay for My People’

Thousands of Afghans fled the Taliban. Many civil servants stayed behind to keep the lights on—whatever the cost.

Members of the Taliban enter the compound of the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Kabul on Sept. 10, 2021.
Members of the Taliban enter the compound of the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Kabul on Sept. 10, 2021.
Members of the Taliban enter the compound of the Ministry of Women's Affairs in Kabul on Sept. 10, 2021. Today the building is used to house the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. The Women's Affairs Ministry no longer exists. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy
By , a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East.

KABUL—Before the Taliban even took Kabul last August, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and most of his cabinet had already fled the country, abandoning a distressed nation of almost 40 million people.

But while tens of thousands left and many more are desperate to escape—fearing a regime as brutal as the Taliban’s previous rule—the majority of civil servants and a handful of key government officials (all men, of course) remained in their jobs, whether by choice or through gritted teeth. Torn between haunting fear and a pinch of careful optimism, many claim they are eager to help work toward a better future for Afghanistan—even if that means working with the Taliban.

The Taliban has, for the past two decades, led an insurgency and a fundamentalist movement. What they hadn’t much practiced before taking over the country on Aug. 15 was learning how to run a state that had been largely fueled by foreign aid. And the international community wasn’t willing to abet their on-the-job training: Soon came sanctions, drastically reduced development funds, economic disaster, and mass poverty.

KABUL—Before the Taliban even took Kabul last August, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and most of his cabinet had already fled the country, abandoning a distressed nation of almost 40 million people.

But while tens of thousands left and many more are desperate to escape—fearing a regime as brutal as the Taliban’s previous rule—the majority of civil servants and a handful of key government officials (all men, of course) remained in their jobs, whether by choice or through gritted teeth. Torn between haunting fear and a pinch of careful optimism, many claim they are eager to help work toward a better future for Afghanistan—even if that means working with the Taliban.

The Taliban has, for the past two decades, led an insurgency and a fundamentalist movement. What they hadn’t much practiced before taking over the country on Aug. 15 was learning how to run a state that had been largely fueled by foreign aid. And the international community wasn’t willing to abet their on-the-job training: Soon came sanctions, drastically reduced development funds, economic disaster, and mass poverty.

But, in a country burdened with an all-male cabinet of many inexperienced mullahs, many key former government officials, including several deputy ministers, who remain in Afghanistan say they are working to help avert further catastrophe.

Nazir Kabiri
Nazir Kabiri

Nazir Kabiri, deputy minister of policy at the Afghan Ministry of Finance and a former Fullbright scholar in Kentucky.

Nazir Kabiri, 40, a former Fulbright scholar in Kentucky, was appointed deputy minister of policy at the Afghan Ministry of Finance in 2020 and remains in his position to this day. While he had several chances to escape—his former boss fled Afghanistan a week before the Taliban marched into the capital—he decided to stay, explaining that he wasn’t afraid of the Taliban and that he hadn’t been hiding anything. He says he’s in a one-man struggle to help save the Afghan economy.

“I didn’t think I could have a meaningful life if I’d left. I lived abroad. I have seen the world and I know that you can best work in your own country. I wanted to stay for my people,” Kabiri said. On Aug. 15, when his employees ran out of the ministry’s office in panic, he stayed, waiting for the Taliban to arrive. “It was the first time I faced them,” Kabiri remembered. By the time he walked home that night, scores of people had already started flooding Kabul International Airport.

Kabiri has, since that first encounter, emerged as a key interlocutor between the international community and the Taliban, training many of the insurgents-turned functionaries at the Ministry of Finance, fighting for aid agencies to be able to operate in the country, and negotiating the arrival of hard cash with the United Nations.

“I see this as a moment of opportunity,” he said, even as both sides glower at each other with mistrust after 20 years of fighting.

The Taliban told Foreign Policy that of the 455,000 total civil servants, more than 98 percent remained in Afghanistan, including at least two deputies at the Ministry of Finance, two at the Ministry of Transport and Aviation, and one in Kabul’s municipal government. Former President Hamid Karzai and former Chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah remain in Afghanistan as well but have essentially been put under house arrest.

“We are in favor of them staying in their country. There is no problem for them,” said Taliban spokesman Inamullah Samangani, referring to government officials and civil servants as well as ordinary Afghans. The Taliban has previously announced a general amnesty for all government officials, saying it would be safe for them to return to work, but many Afghans remain skeptical, admitting that they are looking for a way out.

Women beg a community elder to be included in food distributions in Kabul on Jan. 20.
Women beg a community elder to be included in food distributions in Kabul on Jan. 20.

Women beg a community elder to be included in food distributions in Kabul on Jan. 20. Poverty has spiked since the Taliban’s takeover and the subsequent sanctions and loss of development aid funds. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

A number of women’s rights activists went missing after an alleged night-time raid, and a recent United Nations report found “credible allegations of killings, enforced disappearances and other violations” against former government officials and security forces, a claim the Taliban disputes. Meanwhile, women have largely been eradicated from public office. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs has been closed altogether, and its Kabul office now houses the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, previously responsible for implementing the Taliban’s strict interpretation of sharia law.

“The Taliban leadership has made it clear they do not see a place for women as leaders, as people who should play a part in government, representing the Afghan people,” said Patricia Gossman, associate director for the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. But she spies an opening for men who served in the previous government to act as advocates. “[They] are well aware of the important and influential positions some women held then, and can push for recognizing and including women in these vital roles.”

Afghanistan’s changes have been dramatic—and not just for women. The United Nations fears that 97 percent of the population could be living below the poverty line by the middle of this year. Hunger is widespread, and while active fighting has stopped, the general security situation remains volatile. There are fewer Talibs guarding checkpoints and roads compared to several months ago, and many foot soldiers who initially flocked to Kabul in the flush of victory seem to have gone home.

It’s been difficult, too, even for those that chose to stay behind.

Moneer Ahmad Yousufzai, a 37-year-old electrical engineer and head of the grants department at Afghanistan’s national electricity utility, also stayed—the only person of his rank who didn’t flee the country. He says he hasn’t been paid in nine months, including three months prior to the Taliban’s return. His wife, formerly a teacher, is now at home, unemployed.

Moneer Ahmad Yousufzai, an electrical engineer and head of program at Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), Afghanistan’s national electricity provider, holds a photo of members of his department displayed on his phone in Kabul
Moneer Ahmad Yousufzai, an electrical engineer and head of program at Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS), Afghanistan’s national electricity provider, holds a photo of members of his department displayed on his phone in Kabul

Moneer Ahmad Yousufzai, an electrical engineer and head of the grants department at Afghanistan’s national electricity provider, holds a photo of members of his department displayed on his phone in Kabul on Feb. 4. The photo from August as Kabul fell was the last time they were all together. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

Yousufzai remembers Aug. 15. with a choke in his throat. “We received a call from our team on the outskirts of Kabul at 10:30 a.m., saying they were seeing Talibs walking towards the city,” he said. “We realized they might enter the city. People started yelling and running in panic. Our department was joking that we should take a last photo together before the Taliban’s arrival.” It was the last time they were all together.

Yousufzai paused. Even six months on, the memory is difficult to digest. He has changed his phone number frequently and even moved his family twice since August. Most of his friends left, leaving a social void. He says friends of friends assured him that he’d be safe, suggesting that if he ever got in trouble, they could bail him out with their high-ranking contacts within the Taliban.

Operations at work changed too. The Taliban removed most meeting room furniture, motioning people instead to sit on the floor. The company’s chief executive officer has changed three times since August. Yousufzai’s current boss is a mullah from Kandahar in southern Afghanistan who has memorized the entire Quran, but who knows little about running an electricity company. “He has an open door policy and he listens,” Yousufzai said.

A Taliban flag flies at the attorney general's office in Kabul.
A Taliban flag flies at the attorney general's office in Kabul.

A Taliban flag flies at the attorney general’s office in Kabul on Sept. 1, 2021. Stefanie Glinski for Foreign Policy

While a handful of officials chose to stay in Afghanistan, the majority of civil servants didn’t really have an option. Few had international connections, and while many feared Afghanistan’s new rulers, most depended on a regular income. With the economy paralyzed, the United Nations said that half a million jobs had been lost since the Taliban’s takeover.

Gul Faizi, a 63-year-old manager at the National Statistics and Information Authority, said that even though his salary had been halved, he’s glad to be earning an income. He’s been working in government for the past 40 years, but jokes that he’s neither a communist nor a Taliban.

“I’m just a civilian, and a Muslim. I pray five times a day, but I don’t want to grow a beard. If they tell me ‘you can’t shave anymore,’ maybe that’s when I’ll need to consider leaving.” He holds up an old photo of himself, wearing a turban and sporting a long beard. “During their last regime,” he said. “I shaved it off as soon as they were gone.”

Boys sell balloons in Kabul as more children work after Afghanistan's economic crash.
Boys sell balloons in Kabul as more children work after Afghanistan's economic crash.

Boys sell balloons in Kabul on Feb. 3. More children appear to be working after Afghanistan’s economic crash.

It’s unclear whether the United States and other nations will recognize the Taliban government, meaning that the distribution of development aid remains in limbo. The Taliban itself remains divided, with internal rifts that distract from state-building. Several government employees who fled Afghanistan in August have since returned, but women recognize there is no place for them in the new government, and the majority of Afghans abroad feel threatened by the Taliban. For now, those who keep the lights on and the water running are hoping to simply soldier on.

“Afghanistan needs a long-term solution,” Yousufzai said, though he doesn’t know what that might look like. “All I know is that this country needs technical people and capacity.”

Stefanie Glinski is a journalist covering conflicts and crises with a focus on Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. Twitter: @stephglinski

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