When Afghanistan elected a new president just over a year ago, Romal Shafaq's hopes were high. Despite a string of Taliban attacks in the Afghan capital, he and his business partner bet on boom times for their men’s wear store, whose 14 brightly colored mannequins marked it as a “cool” new place.
“We are going to make our country – someone has to build it,” the young entrepreneur said proudly at the time.
But today, those dreams have been replaced with a river of Afghan refugees to Europe that is second in number only to Syrians.
Afghanistan's ongoing struggle to move beyond decades of war have left the country's young talent in a bind. Many, like Mr. Shafaq, hoped last year's election would yield better jobs, better security, and a new leader who would check rampant corruption.
But now they are reassessing, discouraged by political gridlock, a poor economy, and rising violence – including the Taliban's brief seizure of the city of Kunduz last month. Many are wondering what benefit has come from the hundreds of billions of dollars the US and EU pumped into their nation in the 14 years since the US ousted the Taliban – and why they see so few prospects for themselves.
Anger boiled over Wednesday when thousands took to the rainswept streets of Kabul as mourners transported the coffins of seven Shiite Hazaras – including two women and a girl – who were beheaded in south-central Zabul Province. Though details remain unclear, chants were raised against the Taliban and Islamic State militants, and took an anti-government turn amid the largest protests in recent memory. TOLONews broadcast footage of protesters shouting “Death to Ashraf Ghani!” and “Death to Abdullah Abdullah!” – Afghanistan's president and chief executive. Security forces fired into the air to disperse the crowds at the gates of the presidential palace.
Some young Afghans continue to hold out hope. But many more have packed their bags, contributing to a brain drain just as Afghanistan tries to find its feet amid sharply reduced foreign aid and security assistance.
“People’s expectations [during the 2014 vote] were high that they would be rich, and have a good economy, but they don’t have it,” says Najib Ahmadzai, a former election official who works for the president's office. “Thousands of people are leaving the country because of unemployment,” he says. “Everything depends on security.”
The story of the two young entrepreneurs is hardly unusual today.
Mr. Shafaq and his partner, Mohammad Fardeen, ended up closing their shop after losing thousands of dollars – victims of security fears low sales, and high rent. They sold the eye-catching mannequins. Then Shafaq left for Germany, while Mr. Fardeen tried to reach Turkey overland, only to be stopped and deported at the Iran-Turkey border.
“I [left for Turkey] because of insecurity, and we had no customers,” says Fardeen, who sports a pencil-thin mustache and fingers a long string of prayer beads. Admitting that he underestimated the challenges of escape, he now plans to stay in Kabul, where he works in a cousin’s shop. “When we leave our country we really comprehend how much we love it.”
But worsening violence has sorely tested that affection. Afghans account for 19 percent of the 792,883 refugees arriving in Europe by sea so far this year, according to United Nations figures. That volume is roughly double the figure from the same period last year.
Yet not all are giving up on their native land.
“My family are afraid, but it is our country and we should stay. If everyone goes, who will stay?” asks Shazia Mansori, a political science student at Kabul University, who says she is fighting against the odds. “Afghans are very brave, but they are very tired.”
“I think it’s very disappointing when people leave – it’s very irresponsible. They only think about their lives and not the country,” says Ms. Mansori.
Still, she adds, echoing a steady refrain about Afghanistan’s wealthy and powerful elite: “So much money has been spent, but never for the Afghan people."
The brain drain has been so widespread that one group of young Afghans has tried to stop the flow – and sought to convince exiles to return with their skills – by launching a social media campaign in September called “Afghanistan Needs You."
100 applicants per job
But the list of counter-arguments is long. So far, the post-Karzai Afghan government has been awkwardly split between President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah. There is still no defense minister. And the seizure of Kunduz only underscored that the government had little control. After the attack, US President Barack Obama announced an extension of thousands of US military forces in Afghanistan through 2017.
Those leaving “are disappointed in the system,” says Masood Shneezai, vice chairman of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance for central Wardak Province, where the Taliban are prevalent. He travels with two security vehicles and returns to Kabul to sleep each night.
Among a host of other local governance tasks, his office also oversees recruitment for positions linked to the provincial council.
“If one job is announced then 100 people apply, but only one gets it. What can you tell the rest?” says Mr. Shneezai, who is 29 years old and says he himself is an example of the younger educated, disillusioned set.
Such explanations don't suffice for Afghans like Omar Zazai, who has a master’s degree in agriculture from India and worked five years in Kabul in the media. He once made $800 per month, but now “can’t make even $300.”
“We lost a lot of people with bachelor's and master's degrees,” says the bearded Mr. Zazai, who says family obligations prevent him joining the exodus. “Once upon a time I was shouting, ‘Don’t go abroad!.... This is my country!’ I am proud to be an Afghan, but I just lost all my hope.”