Afghanistan hit by brain drain as ‘best and brightest’ flee Taliban rule

Insurgents struggling to stop exodus of highly educated and skilled workers ‘needed to make the country governable’

A Taliban fighter watches over a protest led by Afghan women in Kabul
A Taliban fighter watches over a protest led by Afghan women in Kabul
(Image credit: Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images)

The re-emergence of Taliban rule has triggered the departure of thousands of highly skilled Afghans from what is already one of the world’s most under-developed nations.

As the insurgents continue to tighten their grip, people with “a wealth of skills and experience” are “joining a brain drain of such grave proportions that even the Taliban, faced with running one of the world’s poorest countries, has taken notice with dismay”, said the Los Angeles Times.

“The exodus of talent further erases what little gains were made in America’s 20-year experiment in nation building,” the paper added. And as Foreign Policy noted, the Taliban’s repressive regime is driving out “the very people they need to make the country governable”.

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‘Losing the best’

Many of the fleeing Afghans are “former government employees, human rights activists, journalists, and other architects of civil society” who along with their families are now facing “nearly unprecedented danger”, Foreign Policy said.

As Taliban soldiers continue to go door-to-door in search of those who worked alongside US and Nato forces, Afghanistan risks “losing the best” of its highly educated and skilled workforce, Alias Wardak, a senior adviser on energy and water to the Afghan Finance Ministry, told the Los Angeles Times.

Wardak is based in Germany but has “set up a six-person team of facilitators” who are helping hundreds of Afghans every day to “fill out and submit immigration forms”, the paper added.

“If someone calls you and there’s an opportunity [to leave], we’re not in a position to convince them to stay,” he said. “But on the other hand, what will happen to this country? Who will work in the administration? In the private sector?

“They will go to the West. Their family will be safe and they will have their life.”

‘Loss of human capital’

Women in Afghanistan are reportedly “burning their degree certificates” to avoid being targeted by the Taliban, said The Atlantic.

The Telegraph reported that amid efforts by the extremists to stop “skilled and qualified Afghans, particularly women, from returning to their jobs”, thousands of Afghans of both sexes are believed to be “waiting, some in hiding, for their visas to be processed to leave Afghanistan”.

Some “have spoken of their despair at being forced to stay in the country by the Taliban”, the paper added.

Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban's chief spokesperson, has blamed the US for encouraging “Afghan experts” to leave. “The doctors and academics of Afghanistan should not leave this country, they should work in their own specialist areas,” he said last month.

In a country where “the rate of literacy is still 43%, and only 9.7% of the population continues their education beyond secondary school”, the loss of many of the “best and brightest” in the labour force “is a colossal loss of human capital”, said The Telegraph.

As the Taliban battles to stem the flood of departures, many “Afghans who have benefited from 20 years of improved education and increased literacy rates have voiced their despair at being forced to stay and work for the Islamists”, the paper added.

The finance minister in neighbouring Pakistan, Shaukat Tarin, has said that his country may “dispatch experts” to Afghanistan to help tackle the brain-drain crisis, Karachi-headquartered paper The News reported.

Tarin told his parliament’s Senate Standing Committee on Finance last week that the situation in Afghanistan, a key trading partner, was “fluid and we are analysing it”, but that Pakistan could fill the gap left by the withdrawal of billions of dollars of Western aid.

But while Pakistan’s support might bolster Afghanistan’s collapsing economy, the outlook for many of more than 30 million Afghans living under Taliban rule is bleak.

Zarghona Roshan, an ex-chief of staff for the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education, told Foreign Policy that her country was entering “the darker ages of ignorance”. She added: “The Taliban occupied Afghanistan, but there is no support from the nation because they are terrorists.”

A report by the Washington-based Brookings Institution last year linked the 20-year US occupation of the country to increased life expectancy and increased social and economic growth among Afghan women.

But those gains are likely to be lost because “the Taliban will not be able to respond to the needs and demands of these people”, Zubaida Akbar, a human rights activist who emigrated to the US from Kabul, told Foreign Policy.

“They have hopes and dreams. Those dreams will be shattered because not all of them will be able to leave Afghanistan,” she said.

“What I see going to happen is chaos - people who are left behind will suffer.”

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