‘We’re losing the best’: Afghanistan faces a massive brain drain as its people flee

One is a journalist with an international news agency. Another works with a nongovernmental aid organization developing rural communities. A third is an artist who found inspiration at home in Kabul.

None of them wanted to go. Now, all are trying to leave or have already left Afghanistan, 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. The exodus of talent further erases what little gains were made in America’s 20-year experiment in nation building — paid for in blood and billions in cash — at a time when the country’s future is in flux.

“We’re losing the best. The consequences will be huge for the country,” said Alias Wardak, a senior advisor on energy and water to the Afghan Finance Ministry, who has divided his time between Afghanistan and Germany over the last decade working on development projects.

Many of his colleagues are still in Afghanistan, Wardak said. Though they want to stay, some are in hiding from the Taliban. Every call he gets is someone crying, devastated over what might come next. He has set up a six-person team of facilitators helping people fill out and submit immigration forms. On Wednesday alone, he fielded 800 requests for assistance.

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

“They will go to the West. Their family will be safe and they will have their life. But how many can be evacuated? We still have over 30 million Afghans who have to stay. What is the solution for them?“

Since the Taliban’s rapid-fire takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15, thousands of Afghans, with the group’s brutal rule in the 1990s in mind, have massed at the capital’s airport, cajoling, pleading, fighting and even dying to get onto evacuation flights out of the country. On Thursday, scores of people were killed — including 13 U.S. service personnel — in a bomb attack outside the airport. The Afghan affiliate of Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.

The U.S. airlift has continued, with more than 100,000 foreigners and their Afghan allies evacuated so far. But tens of thousands of Afghans at potential risk under an Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime remain, and no one expects they will be spirited to safety before the U.S. and NATO’s scheduled withdrawal Tuesday.

The wealth of skills and expertise that has already fled with those who have gotten out is staggering, said Zulaikha Aziz, co-director of the Afghanistan Project at Berkeley Law School, a pro bono program offering legal support to Afghans inside and outside the country.

“Colleagues who are legal scholars, women’s rights activists who have PhD’s in constitutional reform — the real brain hub of Afghanistan,” she said. “These are folks who never had ambitions to come to the U.S. or go to Europe, but now they fear for their lives and their ability to go on with the work to which they’re dedicated.”

Afghan woman being searched at airport

An Afghan woman is searched in a security check at the airport in Kabul.

(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

One of them is Rada Akbar, a photographer and visual artist. With the U.S. withdrawal looming, she had been arranging for months for some of her artwork to be sent to France. As the Taliban scythed through city after city at the beginning of August, French diplomats suggested they give her a visa as well. She assumed she would be gone for only a few weeks.

When the Taliban breached Kabul, she rushed to the French Embassy and spent two panic-filled days there as plans to evacuate to the airport by helicopter fell through. It took an escort of French special forces in a convoy of 15 minibuses and more than eight armored cars to get Akbar and others out. As they drove through the streets, Akbar was in shock.

“To see Taliban in Kabul, it was such a violation. They killed so many people in that city. Every corner you just remember there was a bomb blast here, an attack there,” she said. “And now they have everything. It’s us who lost.”

When she landed in Paris a few days later, Akbar burst into tears.

“I was searching for the mountains,” she said, recalling the view of the majestic Hindu Kush that arriving passengers see as they descend to Kabul’s airport.