Afghanistan faces a brain drain as young, educated flee a wave of violence

KABUL (The Telegraph): In West Kabul’s fashionable cafes, one subject increasingly crops up in conversation among the educated Afghan clientele.

These young, stylishly dressed students and professionals are often hailed as the bright future of Afghanistan, but a wave of violence in the capital has turned thoughts from building their country, to leaving instead.

A campaign of assassinations in the capital targeting educated and often liberal Afghans has chilled a segment of society frequently held up as one of the biggest achievements of the past 20 years. Killings of journalists, civil servants, judges, activists and moderate clerics have persuaded many that any hopes of a safe future now lie abroad.

Their departure risks a brain drain taking with it the fruits of two decades of education, experience and commitment.

“It’s a very serious subject for us, my friends are all looking for a chance to go,” Marzia Mahajer, a television presenter, told the Telegraph last week.

In recent months, explosions have rung out daily in the city of around six million, as unknown assassins attached homemade “sticky bombs” to cars. Last week saw a run of three or four blasts each morning.

Targets have included the security forces and government officials, but the most high profile targets have been members of civil society. Few attacks are claimed. A large proportion are thought to be the work of the Taliban, with some fearing a concerted effort by the insurgents to cow ideological opponents ahead of any talks to find a political settlement.

The insurgents deny involvement. Some attacks may be attributed to other militants, and yet more still may be the work of the capital’s formidable criminal gangs, who often operate with political protection.

There is suspicion that some may even be the work of political factions hoping to capitalise on chaos or discredit the peace talks with the Taliban.

“The assassinations are unknown and the people behind them are not arrested or punished, so it’s made me terrified and fearful,” said Fatima Framarz, an Afghan reporter.

“The fear is so high that when I move out of the house in the morning, I am thinking about whether I will be back in the evening.”

Against such a backdrop, four of her friends had already left the country in recent months, she said. Two had failed to return from studies in Europe and two more had managed to get to Turkey.

The 30-year-old, who holds an international relations masters from Kyrgyzstan, said she wanted to leave, but was trying to find a way to take her mother too. “

“Even if my friends are not talking about leaving publicly, they are still trying to go out of the country and they are actively planning to go. If they have a chance to get out, they will not hesitate,” she said.

Under Donald Trump’s withdrawal deal with the Taliban, American troops are due to leave Afghanistan by May and his successor, Joe Biden, is currently deliberating whether to stick to that timetable.

Taliban violence continues, talks aimed at finding a political settlement have barely begun and the insurgents are said to remain close to al-Qaeda. The assassinations have now added to uncertainty over America’s plans and spread panic among the urban educated class which has arisen in the past 19 years.

For the well-connected or studious, academic trips, scholarships or conferences offer access to India, Turkey, Europe or America where they can then try to remain and claim asylum. Western diplomats and officials report an increasingly frantic stream of calls from Afghan staff and contacts pleading for help to leave the country.

For those without such access, there is little alternative to the people smuggling rackets that propel Afghan migrants towards Europe.

Shaharzad Akbar, chair of Afghanistan’s human rights’ commission, said she personally knew of 10 or 11 friends and acquaintances who had left in recent weeks, largely heading to Turkey and India.

“People are leaving, people are being killed or threatened and then people are nervous about speaking out. It’s very worrying. I worry what is next, how might this end. More and more people are thinking about leaving, or they have left.

“People leave thinking it’s temporary, but I think everyone who has left is watching the situation on the ground to see if things improve and if temporary becomes six or nine months, it’s just a challenge for people to come back.”

She said the tone of many had changed from defiance and a determination to stay, to a resignation that they should leave.

“Most people that I talk to, they generally now think it’s wiser to put saving lives first. This wasn’t the mood even two years ago. Before, there wasn’t this active urging of your friends and loved ones to leave. People are urging each other to get away and stay away.”

The targeting of intellectuals, activists and progressives is all the more dispiriting because it has happened before, during other dark chapters of the country’s past 40 years. Many who survived and entered exile, returned after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and hoped they could change their country.

Instead they and their children are again faced with leaving. “We don’t think that we have a future here,” said one 28-year-old university graduate and journalist who declined to be named.

“When I was a teenager, I thought we will make Afghanistan and resolve all the problems we had. But when I got older, the problems got bigger and I think that the problem is more than us.”