‘The Graveyard of Dreams and Hopes’: Inside Afghanistan’s Brain Drain

Afghanistan's state institutions face the risk of collapse after a mass exodus of educated professionals under the Taliban.
‘The Graveyard of Dreams and Hopes’: Inside Afghanistan’s Brain Drain
A Taliban fighter watches a barge arrive from Uzbekistan. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Umeed was sitting in his office in Kabul when a friend called him to say the Taliban had captured Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan after Kabul, and the spiritual home of the Islamist group.

A pilot in the Afghan military, Umeed, 38, had been planning a large-scale operation against Taliban fighters. But the call confirmed his worst fears: it was already over.
“I was shocked for a moment and then acknowledged that I have lost my beloved country that I had defended for eight years,” Umeed told VICE World News via WhatsApp.


Pilots in the Afghan military had been mercilessly targeted by the Taliban as targets for assassination in the days, weeks, months and years leading up to and following their eventual recapture of the country in August this year. They had participated in countless missions, orchestrated major attacks on the Taliban, shuttled commandos to missions, and provided support for Afghan ground soldiers during the war. Umeed believed he had to escape, and convince his colleagues to do so too.
After hiding for three days, Umeed, along with almost 600 Afghan pilots and soldiers fled to Uzbekistan by air after the fall of Kabul. Umeed, who asked to only be identified by his first name for security reasons, described this period as “the worst days of my life.”

The exodus of pilots is part of an unprecedented brain drain of Afghanistan’s most highly educated people. Tens of thousands of professionals, journalists, professors, doctors, economists, bureaucrats, bankers, civil society activists, and many others playing a significant role in running the country, have left.

The United Nations has warned that up to half a million Afghans could flee the country by the end of the year: the Taliban’s victory has demolished the dreams of an educated generation, and deprived Afghanistan of their skills and experience.


“In the universities of Afghanistan around 25 percent of teachers fled the country, 25 percent are women teachers which the Taliban has banned to continue teaching and 25 percent are not willing to sustain their duties under the Taliban’s strict rules. The remaining teachers will continue to teach [to earn a living],” said a Pashto professor who worked at Kabul University before fleeing to India shortly before the fall of Kabul.

“There is no possibility of starting education in the universities in the next 20 years without the teachers who left the country.”

Last month, the Taliban fired the Kabul University Vice-Chancellor, Muhammad Osman Baburi, a Ph.D. holder, replacing him with Muhammad Ashraf Ghairat, a BA degree holder. Academics across the country have criticised the appointment of Ghairat and some 70 teaching staff at Kabul University resigned from their jobs in protest at the Taliban’s decision. “No teacher is ready to teach in this unfair situation," the Pashto professor added.

A health worker marks a door after administering a polio vaccine during a vaccination campaign in Kabul. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

A health worker marks a door after administering a polio vaccine during a vaccination campaign in Kabul. Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

This is not the first time Afghanistan has experienced such an exodus of educated people. The country suffered a similar fate after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, and later in the 1990s as the civil war started and then the Taliban emerged and took over the majority of Afghanistan for the first time. After the fall of the Taliban regime following the US-led invasion in 2001, many educated Afghans in the diaspora returned home.


Amin Sakhi, 59, an economist who was working with the Ministry of Finance in Kabul, has been forced to flee Afghanistan twice. The first time, he left the country while the civil war started in the 1990s, but came back in 2004. But when the Taliban entered Kabul this year, he packed all his clothes and books in two suitcases, and left.

"I will never go back to Afghanistan as Afghanistan is the graveyard of dreams and hopes,” Sakhi told VICE World News from Germany. “My dreams have vanished two times. I don’t want to massacre my dreams for the third time.”

While the Taliban may have won the war, they now face a huge economic crisis.

Afghanistan's central bank has been blocked from accessing roughly $9 billion in foreign reserves. Presently, more than 18 million people are dependent on humanitarian aid to survive, and the UN has warned that 97 percent of Afghans could fall below the poverty line unless a response to the country’s political and economic crises is urgently launched.

“Afghanistan is on the verge of an economic collapse which will create a humanitarian disaster and the people will suffer from harsh starvation of history because of the failed government of Taliban," Sakhi said.  

“The Taliban are only warriors and they just know how to fight. They even don’t know the definition of the economy that is why they can not run the economy, banking system of the country and make a budget.”

Asmat Aryan, an Afghan political analyst who is no longer in the country, described the Taliban as illiterate and unable to run a functioning state.

“Without these brightest people, Afghanistan will never be able to rebuild,” said Aryan. “Who will run the county if all the best leave?”

Though the Taliban had pledged a general amnesty to all, fighters have allegedly murdered, captured, and beaten people belonging to what could be termed the intelligentsia, sending a wave of fear among the educated elite which has compelled many to flee the country.

Most state institutions, including, education, defence, finance, and aviation are still closed owing to the Taliban's leadership lacking institutionalised knowledge to make these institutions operational.
Running these state institutions will  not be possible without academics, economists, bureaucrats, political scientists, and engineers, Aryan said.

Last month, the education minister of the Taliban's regime, Molvi Noorullah Munir said in a meeting with a university delegation, "no Ph.D. degree, Master's degree is valuable today. You see that the mullahs and Taliban that are in power, have no Ph.D., MA, or even a high school degree, but are the greatest of all."
"Just the puppets of the US left Afghanistan, who received education from the universities made by America and had the western mindset," one Taliban official, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorised to give a statement, told VICE World News. "We don’t need them anymore.”

Hizbullah Khan is a freelance journalist covering Afghanistan based in Europe. Follow him on Twitter here.