‘Who will rebuild the country?’ Educated Afghans’ stay-or-go struggle.

Laura Hasani/Reuters/File
People evacuated from Afghanistan arrive at Pristina Airport in Kosovo, Aug. 29, 2021. The Taliban takeover of Kabul was greeted by a massive brain drain.
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The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has shattered the dreams of a generation of Afghans who had hoped to help end 40 years of fighting and bring their country into the modern era. But it has also forced many to choose between a personal desire to flee for safety and a sense of obligation to serve their country.

For educated women, there seems to be no choice. The Taliban are re-imposing harsh restrictions on their role. Many young people, even those still in Afghanistan because they had no way to flee last month, cannot imagine a future in the sort of country the Taliban seem to envision.

Why We Wrote This

Even some of those Afghans who knew they had to leave their homeland wrestled with a sense that by choosing exile they were betraying their country. How did they resolve that moral dilemma?

But going into exile is never easy. “You are in a paradox,” says Ayesha, a university graduate who did not want to reveal her real name for safety reasons. “You feel like you are betraying your country by leaving. Yet, if you don’t leave, you are wasted here.”

Ayesha had planned to stay. One month into Taliban rule, she is trying to flee. “This is one of the most difficult choices I ever experienced,” she says.

It became a regular ritual for Ayesha. As the Taliban swept across Afghanistan in early August, every day she found herself saying goodbye to another young, well-educated friend who was fleeing the country.

The day before Taliban forces took Kabul, one of those departing friends asked Ayesha when she herself would go. She grew angry as they sat in a restaurant, and said she would not leave.

“We shouldn’t abandon our country when it needs us more than any other time,” Ayesha, a university graduate, remembers telling him. “You will just be wasted in another country.”

Why We Wrote This

Even some of those Afghans who knew they had to leave their homeland wrestled with a sense that by choosing exile they were betraying their country. How did they resolve that moral dilemma?

She has since changed her mind, afraid that as an educated woman under Taliban rule she will be silenced, so she is seeking a way out of the country. “This is one of the most difficult choices I ever experienced,” says Ayesha, who asked that her real name not be used for her own safety.

Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer in transitional justice at the American University of Afghanistan who comes from an Islamist political family, felt obliged to make a different choice.

“I thought that if I could reconcile the two very different worlds I belong to, then maybe Afghanistan had a chance,” says Mr. Baheer. He is staying, for now.

The lightning-quick Taliban takeover of Afghanistan prompted an unprecedented brain drain of Afghanistan’s best and brightest, as tens of thousands of them were evacuated from Kabul last month. But many of those who stayed, voluntarily or otherwise, find themselves torn between a personal desire to flee to safety and a sense of obligation to serve their country.

“You are in this paradox,” says Ayesha. “You feel like you are betraying your country by leaving. Yet, if you don’t leave, you are wasted here. You are nobody.

“I am scared of silence, of not being allowed to speak up,” she adds. “I am scared of being erased.”

“Best and brightest” gone

The Taliban’s victory has crushed the dreams of a generation of Afghans who had hoped to help end 40 years of war and usher their blighted nation into the modern era, but now face a deeply uncertain future. Their departure would make governing the country more difficult, as hard-earned technical expertise and know-how evaporate.

The resulting heartbreak is obvious in Albania, where several hundred of the 122,000-plus Afghans evacuated by the United States have been welcomed before beginning new lives in America.

“I see people here from the [Afghan] Ministry of Finance, from treasury, from defense, from USAID (the U.S. Agency for International Development), the U.S. Embassy, media and U.N. agencies,” says a former deputy minister who fled from Kabul under fire with his two young children, and is now in Albania.

“They are the best of the best, some of the brightest people that Afghanistan had,” says the U.S.-educated Afghan and former Fulbright scholar, who asked not to be named because of family members still at risk in Afghanistan. Their absence “is going to affect the ability of the new authorities in Kabul to establish a functioning state ... that can deliver,” the former official predicts.

Franc Zhurda/AP/File
Evacuated Afghans arrive at Tirana Airport in Albania, Aug. 27, 2021. Some wrestled with a sense they were betraying their country by fleeing the Taliban.

After Kabul fell, Taliban leaders called on educated Afghans to stay and help rebuild the country, promised a general amnesty, and vowed that “no one will knock on your door at night” seeking retribution.

And yet Afghans say that activists, journalists, former officials, and anyone who had ties to U.S. and Western organizations – people routinely threatened by the Taliban throughout their yearslong insurgency – are still being hunted by Taliban fighters going door to door.

Some Afghans are nevertheless fighting the brain drain by staying, in the hope they can act as bridges between the worldviews of the austere Taliban and ordinary citizens.

“Some of us had to take a bet on the Taliban, because we don’t have any other option” but to build such bridges, says university lecturer Mr. Baheer.  

Some people leave Afghanistan, he says, and others stay but live in denial, as if the Taliban had not taken power. “But the truth is, they are here, and the only way to move forward is to try to facilitate a transition, a reconciliation,” he says. “It’s obviously a very difficult bet to make because circumstances change every day, and our hope levels keep wavering.”

Who will rebuild the country?

Other Afghans are not willing to give the Taliban the benefit of the doubt.

“As a young person, of course I want to make my own country, to make my family and people proud. I want to bring change,” says a 19-year-old high school graduate in Kabul, whose dream of applying for college in the U.S. has been shattered.

“If everyone leaves, then who will stay to rebuild the country?” the young man wonders. “That question always comes to my mind. But the Afghanistan I see in the future is completely different from what the Taliban sees. And if I want to change it, if I want a better Afghanistan, the Taliban do not care about that.”

“The Taliban are different in thoughts, in beliefs, and all the things that they stand for are in contradiction to us,” he adds. He is now hoping to accept a university scholarship in India.

One women’s rights activist in the northwest city of Herat, in hiding while she finds a safe way to flee, has reached the same conclusion. Friends have been detained by the Taliban, and she knows of door-to-door searches for activists like her.

Her family demanded that she burn the many certificates she received while working with U.S. and Western organizations. With tears in her eyes, she says, she hid them instead.

To her they represented two decades of hard work, trying to empower women. Such work is no longer possible under the Taliban, and she sees no alternative to exile.

“When I was an activist, when I was busy with my activities, I was alive,” she says. “These last three months, it’s like I am only breathing. I cannot do anything for myself, for my community. It’s like I am not alive.”

“I know that in their hearts ... everyone who has left the country are still in Afghanistan and all thinking about how we can be back and help our beloved country,” says the activist.

“I think they have no option other than to stay alive [abroad], or stay in the country ... silent and hidden for a lifetime.”

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