Why some young Afghans choose to stay

Scott Peterson

KARINAT Saadat is determined to beat the odds and stay in Afghanistan, even as she witnesses her university-aged peers flee a lack of jobs and prospects, and deepening insecurity. “It’s up to us, it’s up to human beings to do anything; if we decide, we can do it,” says Ms. Saadat, a student of Pashtun literature, a poet and a painter, who comes from a largely illiterate family. “There are a lot of chances in Kabul. It’s wrong to say there are no chances.” Saadat may be in the minority – judging by the sheer volume of young Afghans among 178,230 of their countrymen who sought asylum in Europe last year.
But she is not alone. Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said on World Refugee Day, that more than 60,000 Afghan refugees had voluntarily repatriated from Iran and Pakistan in the first six months of 2016. “It is a sign of confidence [in] future inside the country,” he tweeted. That stands in contrast to today’s UNHCR report, which notes a 50 percent increase in forcibly displaced people over the past five years, resulting in the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
It’s not that 19-year-old Saadat or the many other young Afghans who have chosen to stay in Afghanistan think the Taliban is going to end its insurgency tomorrow. Nor that scarce jobs will somehow become plentiful. Nor that the Afghan government will improve and corrosive corruption will end. It’s because they love their country, and wonder who will rebuild it after decades of war, if the very talent to do so simply seeps away. “The young generation all want to stay in Afghanistan, they love their country,” says Hekmatull Shahbaz, a recent graduate and an official of the Afghan Olympic committee, who edits the weekly Kankash youth magazine. “Young people will work hard. But if I leave my country, if we leave, who will make this country?”
Yet to convince them to stay, he says, “the government needs to pave the way for civil society and job creation.” That’s becoming increasingly difficult as Western cash and programmes dry up, 15 years after US forces first ousted the Taliban in 2001 and, alongside NATO nations, began a vast nation-building exercise that has swallowed billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. With US and Western forces now far less numerous, Afghan security forces are facing an increasingly potent Taliban insurgency.
Since the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan has registered significant demographic improvements, from more widespread education and better health care, to less child mortality and longer lifespans. But the insurgency – and an economy growing at one-tenth the pace it was in 2013 – are causing many to leave. A grass-roots campaign called “Afghanistan Needs You.” aimed at educated young Afghans to prevent brain drain and stem the exodus, was started last year by a handful of young activists.
Western analysts who have watched the rise and fall of the latest burst of optimism, after the 2014 presidential election, say young Afghans wanting to stay are facing the gravity of a worsening political and economic situation. The 2014 vote yielded a cumbersome two-headed government. Investment levels are dropping, and many businesses are closing down. “The push factors are getting worse,” says a Western official in Kabul who asked not to be named, referring to the shrinking economy and security problems. “There is a sense that the casino is still open, but the odds are getting worse,” says the official. “There may be fewer and fewer opportunities, but they still see, once in a while, the guy beside them becomes a millionaire because he finds a great contract, or the right connections to the palace.”
“The reality is that Afghanistan right now has the best educated young generation it ever has had, and they cannot apply their optimism, their patriotism…and their new developed skills,” says Alexey Yusupov, country director of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Kabul. “There is a huge gap, the economy can’t fill this gap … so people will leave. — Courtesy: The Christian Science Monitor

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