Taliban failures speed up Afghan brain drain, battering an already crippled economy (Part I)

The mass exodus sparked by the August 2021 Taliban takeover compelled Afghanistan’s new rulers to issue a call for Afghans to stay and help rebuild the country. But after a year of Taliban rule, the economy is in tatters, confidence has been shattered, and Afghanistan’s best and brightest are not returning – they’re fleeing in droves. 


A few days before her interview with a US university admissions officer, Huma Usyan went to her local internet service provider in Kabul to try to ensure her connection would not be cut during the much-anticipated online meeting.

The internet was both a lifeline and a source of stress for the Afghan teenager since the August 15, 2021, Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

When the new rulers banned secondary schools for Afghan girls, Usyan turned to the internet in a desperate bid to continue her studies. In an interview with FRANCE 24 in October 2021, the grade-topping schoolgirl recounted the challenges of her online self-education endeavour.

>> Read more: Online education is the only hope for Afghan schoolgirl, but it’s a slog

After several months of online studying – aided by volunteers, including an English-language teacher, galvanised by the Afghan schoolgirl’s exceptional motivation – Usyan finally managed to reach the interview stage for a US university.

But the internet connection for the critical January 8 interview was out of the 16-year-old’s control.

The Taliban takeover has plunged Afghanistan into an extreme economic crisis, with domestic policies – or lack thereof – combining with global trends to create a humanitarian firestorm.

The internet needs electricity to run. But in a country where power cuts have long necessitated the use of generators, fuel prices have skyrocketed, with the price of diesel increasing 111 percent from last year, according to the UN’s World Food Programme.

So when Usyan tried to get assurances from her local internet service provider, she failed miserably. “They said they didn’t have electricity, generators are very expensive, and there was nothing they do,” she recounted.

Never one to give up in the face of odds, Usyan went to an aunt’s apartment in Kabul, where the service was a bit more reliable, for the selection interview. She aced it. Within weeks, the diligent Afghan student had an admission letter, along with a full scholarship, to her university of choice: the United World College in New Mexico, USA.

On Saturday, July 30 – almost a year after the Taliban takeover – Usyan finally landed in the US. Her family, including her mother and four siblings, were heading to the Netherlands to join her father, who left Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban takeover.  

Huma Usyan arrives at the Islamabad airport in Pakistan from Kabul on July 7, 2022. © Handout

It marked the end of a long journey for the Afghan schoolgirl that began from Kabul to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, where she spent three weeks before she got her US visa.

Usyan was lucky. With US and other Western embassies in Kabul closed, Afghan nationals are forced to travel to neighbouring Pakistan. The high demand has attracted touts, travel agents and middlemen, hiking the cost of a Pakistani visa to $1,000 in recent weeks.

But for Usyan, the stress, hard work and hardships were worth it. Arriving in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was “amazing”, said Usyan in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “It was very different from my expectations. Here in Santa Fe, it’s more like my village in Afghanistan. There are houses, gardens…I was expecting tall buildings. But here, the houses are just one floor. It feels like my village in Daikundi,” she said, referring to her ancestral province in Afghanistan’s central Hazarajat region.

Afghanistan’s best and brightest leave

Migration from Afghanistan is not a new phenomenon. After more than four decades of conflict, Afghans make up one of the largest refugee populations in the world, with around 2.6 million registered refugees from the country, according to the UN. The real figure is likely to be a lot higher.

But the sheer scale of the exodus in the panicked days following the Taliban’s lightening takeover last year was unprecedented. As thousands of desperate Afghans crowded the Kabul airport, some clinging and even falling from departing planes, the country’s brain drain was on tragic display.

As hundreds of thousands of the country’s best and brightest attempted to board departing flights, Taliban leaders called on educated Afghans to stay and help rebuild the country. Zabihullah Mujahid, the movement’s media savvy spokesman, blamed the US for encouraging “Afghan experts” to leave. At a news conference in Kabul days after the takeover, Mujahid promised a general amnesty, vowing “nobody will be harmed in Afghanistan”.

But a year after the Taliban seized power, none of the Islamist group’s promises have come to pass. The new regime’s crackdown on people associated with the previous administration saw many Afghans heading for neighbouring Pakistan or Iran after the aerial evacuations ended.

These included some of Afghanistan’s brightest students, youths like Usyan, who make up a developing country’s greatest intellectual assets and are key to future growth and stability.

The loss could also have implications for regional and global security as the Taliban enters the second year of its second reign – following their disastrous first rule, which began in 1996 and effectively ended with the 9/11 attacks on America.

The school reopening day that wasn’t

After waging a nearly 20-year insurgency, when the Taliban finally got what they wanted on August 15, 2021, they rode into Kabul without a governance plan.

The muddle that passes for their ill-defined vision of an Islamic “emirate” was highlighted seven months into their reign. It effectively killed the hopes of half the Afghan population of 38 million.

Following concerted international pressure, the Taliban earlier this year announced that on March 23, the start of the spring semester, girls’ high schools would open.

But on school reopening day, as secondary schoolgirls gathered at campuses across the country for their first day of classes, they were in for yet another disappointment. The Taliban suddenly, and at the very last minute, reversed the decision. The heartache of young girls bursting into tears outside schools was captured live by national and international news teams.

“Girls’ education is a very, very important factor for many Afghans leaving because they simply couldn’t send their daughters and sisters to school. Many had initially opted to stay in Afghanistan because they felt the country needs them. They are now desperately trying to leave because their daughters and sisters are basically imprisoned and they think they miscalculated,” explained Tamim Asey, co-founder of the Kabul-based Institute for War and Peace Studies and a former Afghan deputy defence minister.

Kandahar asserts itself over Kabul

Women’s rights are a major stumbling block in the Taliban’s bid for international recognition, which in turn could lead to the unfreezing of Afghan bank assets blocked in the US. Reopening secondary schools for girls, a minimum policy requirement, is arguably the easiest gesture the Taliban can make toward that goal.

But the March 23 female education reversal has exposed the splits between what some experts call the “Doha Taliban” – who negotiated a US withdrawal deal in the Qatari capital – and the “Kandahari faction” around the movement’s reclusive chief, Hibatullah Akhundzada, based in the southern Afghan birthplace of the Taliban.

Despite assertions of Taliban unity, there are signs that the regime has developed splits between “rival centers of power” in Kabul and Kandahar. Just a few days before the March 23 school reopening, Afghanistan’s education minister was suddenly summoned from Kabul to Kandahar, according to the New York Times. The Kabul faction, including the education minister, who had announced the decision to allow girls a secondary education, was read the riot act by the conservative Kandahari clique. “Kandahar had asserted itself over Kabul,” noted the Times.

(Click here for Part II of our feature on Afghanistan’s brain drain)

Source: Thanks france24