For 20 years, science has blossomed in Afghanistan. Now many researchers are fleeing and those who remain face lost funding and the threat of persecution.
On Sunday 15 August, geologist Hamidullah Waizy was interviewing job candidates at the Ministry of Mines and Petroleum in Kabul when he was told the Taliban had entered the city, and he must evacuate. The next morning, he saw armed militants on the streets.
Waizy, a researcher at Kabul Polytechnic University who was recently also appointed director-general of prospecting and exploration of mines at the ministry, was shocked by the city’s rapid fall. Since then, he’s lived in limbo, mostly shuttered up in the relative safety of his home.
Across Kabul, most universities and public offices remain closed. The Taliban says it wants officials to continue working, but it is not clear what this will look like. “The future is very uncertain,” Waizy told Nature.
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When the fundamentalist group last held the country, in 1996–2001, it brutally enforced a conservative version of Islamic Sharia law, characterized by women’s-rights violations and suppression of freedom of expression. But after it was overthrown in 2001, international funding poured into Afghanistan and universities thrived.
Now, academics fear for their own safety. They also worry that research will languish without money and personal freedoms, and because educated people will flee. Some fear that they could be persecuted for being involved in international collaborations, or because of their fields of study or their ethnicity.
“The achievements we had over the past 20 years are all at great risk,” says Attaullah Ahmadi, a public-health scientist at Kateb University in Kabul.
According to news reports, billions of dollars in overseas finance for Afghanistan’s government — such as assets held by the US Federal Reserve and credit from the International Monetary Fund — have been frozen. It’s not clear whether or when the funding will be released, and how that will affect universities and researchers, but many report salaries not being paid.
In 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, a US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban. In 2004, a new government was elected.
Kenneth Holland, a dean at O.P. Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India, was president of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul in 2017–19. He says that when he arrived in the country in 2006, he found “almost no research being done at universities; no culture of research”.
Since 2004, the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development and other international organizations have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into universities to support teaching, faculty training and some research, he says.
Some three dozen public universities have been established or re-established since 2010, and tens more private universities have been set up. Public universities are funded by the Ministry of Higher Education, which is financed by international donors, says Holland. Private universities survive on tuition fees, although the AUAF is mostly funded by the US government.
Hopes and aspirations
The student population at public universities grew from 8,000 in 20011 to 170,000 in 2018, one-quarter of whom by that time were women2. And although Afghanistan’s contribution to international journals remained small, the number of papers recorded annually in the Scopus database increased from 71 in 2011 to 285 in 2019.2
Shakardokht Jafari, a medical physicist at the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK, who is originally from Afghanistan, has seen much progress since 2001, from burgeoning enrolment of female students to growing output on topics from cancer to geology. But now she fears “there will be a stagnation of science and research progress”.
For a long time “scientists considered Afghanistan a black hole”, says Najibullah Kakar, a geohazards scientist at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. He is one of many Afghans who went abroad for their education, intending to return with new skills to help build the nation. In 2014, he helped to install Afghanistan’s first seismic network to study plate tectonics. He continued that work until 2019, when conflicts made it difficult to travel to remote areas.
He and his team planned to establish a seismic monitoring and research centre in Afghanistan to warn of natural hazards. But since the fall of Kabul, they have been in a state of panic, and Kakar, who says he has not slept for days, is desperately trying to help get his colleagues out.
Scholars under threat
Kakar’s colleagues are among a tide of researchers seeking asylum overseas. Rose Anderson, a director at humanitarian organization Scholars at Risk (SAR) in New York City, which finds threatened scholars safe havens at universities, says that in August alone, SAR received more than 500 applications from people in Afghanistan.
Some are law scholars who fear reprisals if their field is at odds with the Taliban’s interpretation of Sharia law. Many women fear being targeted for their gender and women’s-rights activism; some men fear being punished for teaching or supervising women. Others worry that they could be added to hit lists because they studied abroad or have international connections.
Almost all “reported a fear of being targeted just because they are in favour of free and critical inquiry and held ideals around respect for human rights and women’s rights”, says Anderson. Many have gone into hiding, or plan to cross into neighbouring countries.
So far, Anderson says, 164 institutions globally have agreed to host scholars, and SAR has appealed to US and European governments to fast-track visas and continue evacuation flights.
But getting people out is difficult: embassies are closed, Kabul airport is overrun and dangerous to get to, and escape over land is hard. Many at risk remain in Afghanistan.
Holland says researchers at the AUAF are particularly vulnerable. The institution has been attacked by militants before: in 2016, 13 people were killed, including faculty members, staff and students. All 60 or so non-Afghan staff members have been evacuated, but only about 20 of some 400 local employees have been flown out, he says. Another 800 students and more than 1,000 alumni could become targets, Holland says.
Risk to minority groups
The largest share of Afghanistan’s population of 39 million, including many members of the Taliban, is ethnically Pashtun. Researchers from other ethnic groups risk persecution.
Musa Joya is a medical physicist at Tehran University of Medical Science in Iran, who also works as a lecturer in Kabul. He belongs to the Farsi-speaking Hazara community, which he says makes him a target. He had planned to return to Kabul next year to work at a radiotherapy centre supported by the International Atomic Energy Agency, but those plans could be suspended. Remaining in Iran might not be a solution either, because it is difficult for non-nationals to gain employment at research institutes, Joya says.
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His wife and children are still in Afghanistan. “I really see a dark future,” he says. “I don’t know how to feed my family; how to rescue them; how to protect them.”
He hasn’t heard reports of the Taliban persecuting people in Kabul, but news of killings in other provinces alarms him. People are “getting ready for a storm”, he says.
There are a few hints that things might not be as restrictive as they were under the previous Taliban administration. Several researchers report that the Taliban is in discussion with university heads about restarting classes. There are suggestions that women might be allowed to continue their studies, although the Taliban has ordered that women and men be taught separately, and some universities have proposed introducing partitions in classrooms.
But in the city of Bamyan, west of Kabul, women have been told not to work and to stay at home, says a female lecturer and education researcher there, who graduated from AUAF and is Hazara. “I am under threat from the Taliban now,” she says.
Appeals for support
Scientists also worry about the future of research. Joya fears that the Taliban won’t prioritize research, or recognize its value. And he does not know how universities will cope without international financial support.
One Kabul-based scholar and member of the Afghanistan Science Academy, who does not want to be named, says this is the third time that he and his family, like many in Afghanistan, have lost everything. He fled during the unrest in the late 1970s ahead of the invasion of the Soviet Union; again in the late 1990s during the Taliban’s previous tenure; and is now considering fleeing once more. “It is a very difficult situation for a human being: you are born in war, you grow up in war and now you will die in war.”
Many people with postgraduate degrees have already fled. “This is a big catastrophe for the future of Afghanistan,” he says. “There will be no educated people left.”
The academy, for example, employed some 200 scholars and 160 other staff, with an annual budget of some 300 million afghani (US$3.5 million), he adds. But they, and many government employees, have not been paid for two months, as the Taliban tightened its grip on the nation.
“The system is almost paralysed,” says Ahmadi.
It is not clear whether the international community will recognize the new government and continue to provide funding. Researchers hope they will not be abandoned. “We spent all our money, energy and time in Afghanistan to build a brighter future for ourselves and our children. But with this kind of withdrawal, they destroyed all our lives, all our hopes and ambitions,” says Joya.