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Brain Drained: Exodus Of Professionals Since Taliban Takeover Leaves Afghanistan Starting From Scratch Again

Afghans and foreigners line up at Kabul's airport in August 2021 to be evacuated following the Taliban takeover. "We always have to start from scratch in Afghanistan to make some progress," said Sima Stanekzai, a former provincial deputy governor.

Ahmad Ghani Khosrawi dedicated two decades of his life to restoring Afghanistan's education system, only to find himself rebuilding his career abroad following the country's return to Taliban rule.

In leaving for Germany, Khosrawi, who headed the Faculty of Literature and Humanities at Herat University, joined the exodus of professionals that has left Afghanistan depleted of some of its best and brightest minds as the country once again adjusts to new rulers in Kabul.

Doctors, engineers, judges, and lawyers were among those who had the financial means, education, and skills that could facilitate emigration. Losing such human capital, simply put, is disastrous for Afghanistan."
-- Weeda Mehran, University of Exeter

Many left ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. and foreign forces a year ago, anticipating that an era of democratic and social reform was coming to an end. Others, like Khosrawi, joined the exodus only after the Taliban seized power in August 2021 and filled the professional ranks with often unqualified loyalists.

"They came and appointed their own people," Khosrawi said of the situation in the education sector. "Naturally, this was a fatal blow to the universities and caused a large number of professors to leave the country."

A year on, the Taliban government is reeling from the brain drain that has hampered its ability to provide basic services and deal with a devastating economic and humanitarian crisis.

The loss of skilled workers has particularly affected the health, education, security, and judicial sectors, according to Weeda Mehran, co-director of the Center for Advanced International Studies (CAIS) at the University of Exeter in Britain.

"While hard data about the exact numbers is not available, it is safe to say that thousands of highly skilled and educated Afghans have left the country," the professor said.

Afghan citizens evacuated from Kabul arrive at the Rota naval base in southern Spain on August 31, 2021.
Afghan citizens evacuated from Kabul arrive at the Rota naval base in southern Spain on August 31, 2021.

Many who left had pursued an education abroad or trained at elite foreign military academies under the previous, Western-backed government that took power following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

“Doctors, engineers, judges, and lawyers were among those who had the financial means, education, and skills that could facilitate emigration," Mehran said. "Losing such human capital, simply put, is disastrous for Afghanistan."

The Taliban is already dealing with formidable obstacles that would test any government. Its rule remains officially unrecognized by any country, and the delivery of promised international aid intended to help the country deal with a humanitarian crisis brought on by famine, drought, and insecurity has been complicated in part by international sanctions imposed on the militant group.

In turn, the Taliban's return to its notorious restrictions on women and ban on girls' education, combined with its failure to live up to its own promises to uphold free media and share power, have contributed to its international isolation.

'Starting From Scratch'

Sima Stanekzai was appointed a deputy governor of Jowzjan Province in 2021 after working as a reporter and activist for 15 years. Hers was the highest-ranking position ever held by a woman in the northern province under the previous government. But the Taliban's return to power led her to flee with her family to Germany out of fear of retaliation.

Now, she feels that 20 years of effort and service in Afghanistan were wasted overnight.

"We always have to start from scratch in Afghanistan to make some progress, if at all," Stanekzai told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "And then everything gets messed up again."

Women had virtually no rights during the Taliban’s first stint in power from 1996 to 2001. During the 20 years of foreign military presence that followed the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, women still faced major obstacles in exercising their newfound rights.

The latest report by the U.S. Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, issued on July 30, noted that "while the opportunities available to Afghan women slowly increased under the Islamic Republic as compared to the preceding years of Taliban rule, women's rights and gender-mainstreaming efforts in Afghanistan failed to achieve the structural change the U.S. and international partners had envisioned."

Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on August 30, 2021. "Losing such human capital, simply put, is disastrous," says one expert.
Evacuees wait to board a Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on August 30, 2021. "Losing such human capital, simply put, is disastrous," says one expert.

Behnaz Rasuli was among the women who bought into the post-Taliban system that had allowed women to work and take part in public life. She opened a sewing business in the city of Herat, running two stores that employed only women, before her hopes were dashed.

"Unfortunately, with the arrival of the Taliban, I had to close the shops in a hurry because I was afraid the saleswomen might be harmed," Rasuli told Radio Azadi. "Little by little, the women's motivation dropped, some of them moved away, and luck was not on our side, and I closed the shop."

After collecting what was left of her meager savings, Rasuli, too, left for abroad.

Observers believe the departure of qualified female educators in Afghanistan will significantly hinder the future of girls' education -- a prospect that was discussed at a major sit-down of religious scholars organized by the Taliban in Kabul in June.

"Should the Taliban allow secondary and high school girls to return to classes, there will be a shortage of female teachers," the CAIS's Mehran told RFE/RL in written comments. "This might be compounded by the fact that male teachers will not be allowed to teach girls. Likewise, many universities are already facing a shortage of female staff, particularly female professors, as the Taliban's policy has been complete gender segregation in higher-education institutions."

Not The First Time

Afghanistan has been through this before, having suffered major departures of skilled workers after the Soviet invasion in 1979, as well as during the 1992-96 civil war that resulted in the Taliban first taking power.

Each time, the exodus left a vacuum of talent that set the country back years or decades and required its leaders to start anew in training new people to fill the void.

Even as more than 1 million Afghans have left the country -- some by crossing into neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran, and others seeking official refugee status in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere in the West -- some have come back.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 1,430 Afghan refugees have voluntarily returned to Afghanistan since the beginning of this year, of whom nearly 300 have settled in Kabul.

UNHCR senior communications officer Peter Kessler told RFE/RL in written comments that those numbers are slightly more than the figures for the same time last year and more than double those of two years ago.

Ever since the Taliban overran Kabul on August 15, 2021, its leadership has tried to encourage civil servants, military and security personnel, educators, and others to remain or return to the country of around 40 million people.

The Taliban promised an amnesty for security forces and others who had worked for the previous government and claimed that for those who had already left "all would be forgiven" and professionals would be treated as "heroes" upon their return to the country.

In May, the Taliban put those promises in writing when it announced the objectives and duties of its new Commission for Contact With Afghan Personalities that aimed to recruit prominent professionals to return to Afghanistan.

The Taliban offered assurances to former politicians and soldiers who feared for their security, saying they would be given temporary shelter and protection. Regarding the private sector, the Taliban promised that "if someone creates a problem for returnees, they will be dealt with."

On its Twitter feed, the commission has openly extended an olive branch to those who emigrated, inviting "academic, political and intellectual figures, experts, intellectuals, and all Afghans who live outside the country" to return.

But few politicians, security personnel, and officials who served the former government have taken up the Taliban’s offer. The militant group has been accused by international rights groups of carrying out hundreds of human rights violations since seizing power, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and torture of those associated with the ousted government along with human rights defenders and journalists.

Irreparable Damage?

Serious doubts remain about the Taliban's commitment to living up to its promises and ability to compensate for the brain drain on its own.

Faisal Karimi, a former journalism professor at Herat University and former head of the Afghanistan Media Studies Center who now lives in the United States, said that the loss of skilled workers "is irreparable, at least in the next century."

To retrain and form such a workforce, Karimi told Radio Azadi, would require the establishment of facilities and the investment of "millions and billions of dollars."

Hameed Hakimi, an associate fellow at Chatham House in London and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, noted that even before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan was already one of the worst performing countries in terms of human development and other measures.

The loss of professionals, he said, would "certainly impact the country's long-term difficult journey to socioeconomic and societal prosperity." Compensating for the departures, he told RFE/RL in written comments, would require not only money but confidence-building, both of which he said "are absent at present."

"If families and new generations feel the only way they can become successful in life is to leave the country, building a talented workforce and an educated class of men and women will become impossible," Hakimi said.

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    Michael Scollon

    Michael Scollon is a senior correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague.

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    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi is one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.