Wednesday May 22, 2024

Afghanistan’s brain drain

By Nauman Ahmad Bhatti
August 16, 2021

The US government has finally decided to pull out its troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, nearly two decades after the United States first invaded to oust the Taliban.

American President Joe Biden has shown faith in the Afghan government for defending its country from the Taliban. The Afghan people, however, do not possess as much faith in their government as does Biden.

As a result, Afghanistan is once again on the verge of a severe brain drain. Brain drain is when talented professionals consistently depart from a country to pursue opportunities abroad. The absence of the cream of the nation leaves the country hollow and the economy continues to slide downhill. Mass unemployment, insurgency and security vacuum are the reasons millions of Afghans have been forced to abandon their war-torn country over different periods of time.

The coming withdrawal from Afghanistan will not only be that of foreign troops but also from the locals who are also looking for a way out. The passport offices of Afghanistan are crowded as people plan their exit. In an effort to escape an imminent civil war, about 10,000 citizens seek exit visas every day. Most of them are worried about the Taliban regime and its horrors in collective memory of the situation in the 1990s when the Taliban first took over the country. They want to leave before the Taliban seize complete control.

The finest of professionals are also vacating, leaving behind an utterly barren Afghanistan. Some say that even Afghan soldiers have started to take off. It was reported that more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers have escaped to Tajikistan to avoid warfare. On the contrary, most of the soldiers of the Afghan army do not plan on availing that option, as they feel the country is finally theirs to defend against the decades-old Taliban threat.

This mass mobility is not novel for Afghans. Their violent history of the past 40 years is filled with such displacements. In the aftermath of the US-Soviet war in Afghanistan, a total of seven million Afghans were forced to flee. The first ones to leave a racked country are the most resourceful ones. They have the financial advantage. Tertiary workers like doctors, engineers, scientists, academics etc have been usually the first ones to relocate from Afghanistan. The poorer ones leave once all is lost. Well-off refugees have historically settled in more prosperous countries of the West, whereas the poorer ones were accepted by developing countries like Pakistan and Iran.

After the Taliban were expelled by the US in 2001, a ray of hope emerged. Many displaced Afghans returned to their country in a hope to change the course of their future generations. Since 2002, more than 5.3 million Afghans re-entered their country. But fate had planned otherwise. This rate of return now stands at zero. Since the start of this year, more than 300,000 Afghans have been displaced. This figure is increasing on a daily basis.

As the Taliban expand their ruling territory, a civil war yet again awaits the Afghan soil. People in Afghanistan who believe in democracy, civil liberty and human rights cannot live under the Taliban. And the Taliban will not let them in any case, wanting to apply their ultraconservative interpretation of religion to their subjects. The Taliban will likely end women’s education. Artists, activists and journalists are already being persecuted. Their expansion is a threat to the progress the Afghans have made over the last 20 years. This is why the departure of Afghans from Afghanistan is not only a measure for leading better lives but also for saving their lives.

Those leaving Afghanistan have long sought asylum in different countries. In most of those countries, they are kept undocumented, thereby leaving them no choice but to do trivial jobs to earn their living. The talent is not only leaving the country but being wasted as a whole. The jobs of the refugees seldom match the portfolio previously maintained by the professionals back at home.

The brain drain in Afghanistan has created a new refugee crisis for the West and for countries nearby. Turkey is seeing one of the biggest refugee issues, as the number of migrants arriving there has reached around 1,000 per day. Former ambassador of Italy to Nato and former national security advisor to the president of Italy Stefano Stefanini has highlighted: “The brunt will be felt in the neighboring countries: Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan.” Currently, there are around seven million refugees living in Pakistan and Iran. That is why Pakistan and Iran have publicly announced they will not receive any more refugees. These people are nowhere near leaving their sanctuaries.

Those who cannot afford to leave via the immigration process have resorted to illegal channels for their departure. As a result, thousands of refugees are being detained for illegally crossing the borders of various countries.

This brain drain is a direct outcome of yet another failed US war. Washington should have planned an effective exit strategy as opposed to the current hasty and unthoughtful withdrawal. The US government must support the Afghan government militarily to deal with the Taliban expansion. This is the very least of what it owes to the Afghan people. It is barbaric to infiltrate a country by force and leave without necessary post-withdrawal peace measures.

The arrangement of jobs for the Afghan refugees made by Biden in the Refugee Resettlement Program for Afghans is of little use. Locals complain that only those will benefit from this programme who had already been working on US projects based in Afghanistan, while others remain on thin ice.

With the Taliban spreading their rule speedily, it would become extremely difficult for students to continue their education. They will have to leave the country if they wish to pursue an education. Those who leave seldom return. A study finds that those who leave their native land for Masters or PhD degrees are the ones least likely to return.

There has hardly been a time of solace on Afghan soil. That is why millions of displaced Afghan refugees have not returned to their native land. The pace at which the current expatriation in Afghanistan is taking place is alarming. It is expected that most of the emigrants will never get to see their hometowns. Returning immigrants would want to view their return as a personal opportunity rather than an obligation to their home country. The less opportunities they see in their home country, the fewer are the chances of their return.

The future of Afghanistan’s people remains unclear, but one thing is for sure: they are needed desperately back home.

The writer is an engineer and a scholar of history and politics. He can be reached at

Twitter: @naumanbhatti_1