On Sunday, August 15, when geologist Hamidullah Waizy was interviewing job applicants at the Kabul Ministry of Mines and Petroleum, he was told that the Taliban had entered the city and he had to evacuate. The next morning, he saw armed militants in the street.
Waizy, a researcher at Kabul University of Technology, was recently appointed as the director-general of mineral exploration and exploration for the ministry, and was shocked by the city’s rapid decline. Since then, he has been living in a difficult situation and spent most of his time in a relatively safe home.
Throughout Kabul, most universities and public offices remain closed. The Taliban expressed their hope that officials will continue to work, but it is not yet clear what this will look like. “The future is very uncertain,” Waizy said nature.
When the fundamentalist group ruled the country for the last time, from 1996 to 2001, it brutally enforced a conservative version of Sharia law, which was characterized by violations of women’s rights and suppression of freedom of speech. But after it was overthrown in 2001, international funds poured into Afghanistan, and universities flourished.
Now scholars worry about their safety. They also worry that without money and personal freedom, research will dry up because educated people will flee. Some people worry that they may be persecuted for participating in international cooperation, or because of their research field or ethnicity.
“Our achievements in the past 20 years are at great risk,” said Attaullah Ahmadi, a public health scientist at Katebu University in Kabul.
According to news reports, the Afghan government’s billions of dollars in overseas financing—such as assets held by the Federal Reserve and credits from the International Monetary Fund—have been frozen. It is not clear whether or when the funds will be released, and how this will affect universities and researchers, but many reports state that wages are not paid.
In 2001, after the US terrorist attack on September 11, a coalition led by the US invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban. In 2004, the new government was elected.
Kenneth Holland is the Dean of OP Jindal Global University in Sonypat, India. He was the President of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul from 2017-19. He said that when he arrived in the country in 2006, he found that “the university has hardly conducted any research; there is no research culture”.
He said that since 2004, the World Bank, the United States Agency for International Development and other international organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in universities to support teaching, teacher training and some research.
Since 2010, about 30 public universities have been built or renovated, and dozens of private universities have been newly built. Holland said public universities are funded by the Ministry of Higher Education and funded by international donors. Private universities survive on tuition fees, although AUAF is mainly funded by the US government.
Hopes and wishes
The number of students in public universities has increased from 8,000 in 2001 to 170,000 in 2018, and a quarter of them are women. Although Afghanistan’s contribution to international journals is still small, the number of papers recorded in the Scopus database each year has increased from 71 in 2011 to 285 in 2019.
Shakardokht Jafari is a medical physicist from the University of Surrey in Guildford, England. She is from Afghanistan. She has made great progress since 2001, from the rapid enrollment of female students to the increasing output of topics ranging from cancer to geology. But now she is worried that “science and research progress will stagnate.”
For a long time, “scientists believe that Afghanistan is a black hole,” said Najibullah Kakar, a geohazard scientist at the GFZ German Earth Science Research Center in Potsdam. He is one of many Afghans who have gone abroad to receive education, and they intend to return home with new skills to help build the country. In 2014, he helped install Afghanistan’s first seismic network to study plate tectonics. He continued this work until 2019, when the conflict made it difficult to travel to remote areas.
He and his team plan to establish an earthquake monitoring and research center in Afghanistan to warn of natural disasters. But since the fall of Kabul, they have been in a state of panic. Kakar said he hasn’t slept for several days and he is desperately helping his colleagues out.
Kakar’s colleague is one of the researchers seeking asylum overseas. Rose Anderson, director of the New York City Humanitarian Organization Risk Scholars (SAR), said that in August alone, SAR received more than 500 applications from the Afghan people.
Some are legal scholars, and if their field is inconsistent with the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law, they are afraid of retaliation. Many women are afraid of being targeted because of their gender and feminine rights radicalism; some men are afraid of being punished for teaching or supervising women. Others worry that they might be added to the hot list because they study abroad or have international relations.
Anderson said that almost everyone “expressed fear of being targeted because they support free and critical investigations and have the ideal of respecting human rights and women’s rights.” Many people go into hiding or plan to enter neighboring countries.
Anderson said that so far, 164 institutions around the world have agreed to host scholars, and the SAR has called on the US and European governments to speed up visa approvals and continue to provide evacuation flights.
But getting people out is difficult: the embassy is closed, the Kabul airport is overcrowded and dangerous to reach, and it is difficult to escape from land. Many people in danger remain in Afghanistan.
Holland said AUAF researchers are particularly vulnerable. The institution has been attacked by militants before: in 2016, 13 people were killed, including faculty, staff and students. He said that all around 60 non-Afghan staff had been evacuated, but only about 20 of the approximately 400 local employees had been airlifted. Holland said that another 800 students and more than 1,000 alumni could be targeted.
Risks faced by minorities
The largest part of Afghanistan’s 39 million people (including many Taliban members) are Pashtuns. Researchers from other ethnic groups are at risk of persecution.
Musa Joya is a medical physicist at Tehran Medical University, Iran, and also serves as a lecturer in Kabul. He belongs to the Persian Hazara community, which he said made him a target. He originally planned to return to Kabul next year to work at a radiotherapy center supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but these plans may be suspended. Qiaoya said that staying in Iran may not be a solution, because it is difficult for non-nationals to find work in research institutions.
His wife and children are still in Afghanistan. “I really see a dark future,” he said. “I don’t know how to support my family; how to rescue them; how to protect them.”
He had not heard reports of the Taliban persecuting people in Kabul, but the news of killings in other provinces shocked him. He said people are “preparing for the storm.”
There are some signs that things may not be as strict as the former Taliban government. Several researchers report that the Taliban are discussing the reopening of classes with the university president. It has been suggested that women may be allowed to continue their studies, even though the Taliban has ordered men and women to teach separately, and some universities have proposed separation in classes.
But in Bamyan, west of Kabul, a female lecturer and education researcher said that the woman was told not to work but to stay at home. She graduated from AUAF and is a Hazara. “I am now threatened by the Taliban,” she said.
Call for support
Scientists are also worried about the future of research. Joya is worried that the Taliban will not prioritize research or recognize its value. He did not know how the university would respond without international financial support.
A Kabul scholar and member of the Afghan Academy of Sciences, who asked not to be named, said that this is the third time he and his family have lost everything like many people in Afghanistan. He fled during the turmoil before the invasion of the Soviet Union in the late 1970s; again during the Taliban’s tenure in the late 1990s; now he is considering fleeing again. “For a person, this is a very difficult situation: you were born in a war, you grew up in a war, and now you will die in a war.”
Many people with graduate degrees have fled. “This is a catastrophe for the future of Afghanistan,” he said. “There will be no educated people.”
For example, the college employs approximately 200 academics and 160 other staff, and has an annual budget of approximately 300 million afghanis ($3.5 million), he added. But as the Taliban strengthened their control over the country, they and many government employees have not received their wages for two months.
“This system is almost paralyzed,” Ahmadi said.
It is not clear whether the international community will recognize the new government and continue to provide funding. Researchers hope that they will not be abandoned. “We spent all our money, energy and time in Afghanistan to build a better future for ourselves and our children. But through this retreat, they destroyed all our lives, all our hopes and aspirations, “Joya said.
This article is reproduced with authorization and has been First published August 27, 2021.