It there a future for scientists in Afghanistan?


August 24, 2021.  

Q: Thanks for talking to us. Our last interview was two years ago and we were talking about the challenges that scientists were facing at the time. Would you have thought then, that things would become worse?*)

A:  Thank you for asking me to speak about the situation in Afghanistan today. Yes, I was still optimistic two years ago. My optimism was based on the foundation that had been laid in the preceding years: institutions had been founded, enterprises had been developed, and millions of teens and children, both male and female, were attending school. The international community was standing by the Afghan government and things were moving in a positive direction. I couldn’t imagine the international community would withdraw all of a sudden and the country would collapse and end up in the hands of the Taliban again. Like everyone else, I am concerned that all of the efforts in the fields of education, reconstruction, and rehabilitation that have been made possible at the expense of thousands of lives will be dragged to nothing. Another concern is the major brain-drain out of the country presently taking place. Many educated and trained Afghans are leaving because they are afraid of the new rulers, who believe in violence only and have shown their brutality in the past. Even after having taken over the country, they don’t have a plan for anything. So we don’t see any future under them and that is what causes disappointment, anxiety and depression among people.

Q: One year ago, you came to Europe. So how was the situation at that moment when you left Afghanistan?

A: Last year when I came to Europe, the situation in Afghanistan was bad but not worse than before, there was still hope. Of course, there were issues in the government, for example, and insecurity across the country, and one could face challenges in terms of mobility etc. There were targeted killings and explosions all over the country, but there was an institutional set-up in the form of police, defense, intelligence etc. It was possible to voice criticism and make representatives of the government respond to people’s concerns. The victims of those bombs were not only officials but also common people. But people still trusted in the institutions in place while hoping and expecting that they would manage to keep overall control. Nevertheless, people holding public offices were targeted one by one. The violence increased day by day, and instability and gunshots were reported from the streets where I had been living for years while working with various government and non-governmental organizations. There was hardly a morning or evening without reports of an explosion, fatalities, or violence. After finishing my education in Germany, I returned numerous times to my homeland, each time hoping to serve my people and nation in a relatively secure environment.

Q: How is the situation in Afghanistan for people working in the field of science and academia now?

A: The scientific and academic community in Afghanistan is completely shocked after the country was suddenly taken over by Taliban. They fear the situation might get worse for them, especially because the extremists do not believe in the principles of science. They think science and technology are against their belief system, and they want things to be ruled in their way. For example, when the Taliban seized power in 1996, they burnt a lot of the data sets from the meteorological department. The reason for that, they used to tell people, was that how could you forecast weather, you're not God. One of the problems we have been facing in Afghanistan for decades (because of the multiple armed conflicts since the Russian invasion in 1979) in the planning and management of natural resources management is the collecting and processing of data. Currently, the Taliban are installing their people as heads of state ministries such as Higher Education, Agriculture, Economy etc. Their new position holders returned directly from the military front lines, they do not have experience in and are therefore not capable of leading such institutions. Besides, it is difficult for academics, scientists and professionals to work at a table while threatened and surrounded by Kalashnikovs. Many scientists, engineers etc. are searching for options to leave the country as soon as possible, in the hope of being able to return to Afghanistan in better times and thus engaging in and contributing to (re-)constructing their country.

Q: One question about the Taliban rejecting science and technology… In contrast to 20 years ago when they took power, they have professionalized and they're using their own social media channels, produce video clips and so on. So how can they reject modern technology and, on the contrary, use it for their own purposes?

A:  Good question to be posed to the Taliban’s spokesperson - I would be interested in hearing their answer! Actually, compared to 20 years back, you are right, they are using the technology that supports their narrative and makes their voice louder, but they do not seem to tolerate diverging opinions. They have recently started blowing up electric power towers regularly in the country's northern and eastern regions. For several days, the whole country was without power. The government was investing heavily in infrastructure maintenance; it has been very difficult for a country that used to depend on foreign aid. The Taliban make use of electric power, but they have also been destroying it. They sought to put pressure on the government so that they would surrender, or to make it difficult for them to carry out their routine duties.

Though they have been using social media channels and cell phones in most of the areas where they have been dominant or rule, they also threatened the network operating companies to stop their services. They have been torturing common citizens when they found a sim card in their pocket, particularly of state-owned companies. Last week, they assassinated the director of the government’s media center. However, the Taliban’s first press conference was held at the same media center. So why does someone who was leading this very media center deserves to be killed in front of his kids and family, and the person who confessed that the director was murdered by Taliban, is now seated in the very chair and heading the same office? 

Q. Talking about politics: What do you think is the main difference between the Taliban movement (which was and is, of course, not one monolithic block) roughly 25 years ago, and the current movement that has been seizing power in Afghanistan?

A.  Time will tell. It has been just a week or two since they have taken control of the country through violence. We see their presence in the capital and in the provinces. So far we have seen violence in some provinces, their behavior toward the common people is very aggressive, and their exploitation of public property is not acceptable. They have been posting videos on their social media channels showing extreme hate towards the property which is owned by the public and the government. Non-violent protesters in different provinces have been shot and we heard that people have been killed while raising the Afghan national flag. So behavior-wise, there does not seem to be so much difference but we will wait and see what they are going to do in the following months. It is too early to draw conclusions about their behavior and political maturity in such a short time. But as you can see on national and international media, they don’t have any plan for education, science, research, human rights, health and economy etc.

Q. What can the academic and scientific community abroad do to help colleagues in Afghanistan?

A. Over the past 20 years, strong academic networks have been established. Resources and capital have been invested, especially from Germany, the EU and the USA. I think the international community, especially Germany, the United States and other European countries should try to involve Afghan academics, researchers and scientists in their projects. A 20-year-long investment in people and education has been made and to lose it all would be a big disaster, an irreparable loss and a total disappointment. To avoid this discouragement, I think Afghan scientists, professionals and academics have to be brought abroad to safer places, so it is possible to keep working with them on useful and productive projects. It is also important that the international community puts pressure on the Taliban and their supporters to stop using terroristic methods for ruling the country, as well as to respect the law and international human rights.

Q. You just mentioned the 20 years of foreign investments. The USA have spent $83 billion for primarily military deployment in the past 20 years in Afghanistan. What do you think remains beyond the realm of military intervention and support?

A. Not only the USA but also Germany has spent a lot of money and resources in Afghanistan, it's been a long-term engagement. Besides the military aspects, Germany and the international community have donated a lot to Afghanistan. The money was used mainly for constructing buildings for universities, schools, colleges, institutions, capacity building and infrastructure, and thus substantial achievements have been made during this time. But now, people are scared to go to the offices, because they don't know if they will be confronted by Taliban and whether they will be paid. Governing a country is a complex system, and this system has collapsed under the Taliban who do not know the basics of ruling such a complex system. Public employees are afraid, feel at risk and are psychologically depressed. Hopefully, the international community will keep an eye on the activities of the Taliban, because people do fear and think they are revengeful. At least some investment could be made by the international stakeholders, meanwhile, the brain drain could be counteracted. If the international community ignores and looks away from the situation in Afghanistan, I am afraid this may cause a long-lasting disaster for the country which might have consequences for the rest of the world too. So that's why the international community has to constantly watch the situation, convince the Taliban to safeguard the infrastructure and institutions, and run it peacefully so that services can be delivered to the Afghan people now and in the future.

Q. Where do you expect Afghanistan to be in one year from now?

A. Again, there are lots of speculations, some people say that they are trying to make a cumulative government. We don't know, based on what happened before under the Taliban regime some 25 years ago, nobody trusts their promises anymore. Moreover, the new rulers do not seem to have a proper plan or strategy, they do not have experts and represent a conservative group which seems to believe more in violence and weapons. The new rulers are mostly visible with guns, rockets and military ammunition. They don't have any plan for how to run a government and its institutions, or how to finance these institutions which had been operational for the last 20 years. Until today, there is no prime leader, at least he didn't appear on any screen, although the whole country is ruled by them right now. But still, the sudden and continuous attention of the international community makes people think that the new rulers might behave better than before. So, again, I don't think at this stage we can say how they would be performing in a year.

 

*) The interviewee asked for anonymity because of security reasons.

The interview was conducted via Zoom by Alma van der Veen (ZEF).