KABUL: Mohammad comes from a good family and has a good job at a US construction company. But one by one he has watched friends and relatives leave Afghanistan – the vast majority in the last year.
One fled to Europe after witnessing a Taliban suicide attack on an upmarket lakeside hotel near Kabul in June.
“He was in the restaurant. His brother received four bullets in the leg. He called in shock. His brother was in the emergency hospital. Now he’s in Germany,” said Mohammad, well dressed with impeccable English.
The 27-year-old trained architect, who did not want his real name disclosed, has the trappings of a comfortable life – an iPhone, a fairly new car, nice clothes and foreign holidays.
Except that he and his friends live in fear of the Taliban, 11 years after the US-led invasion kicked the Islamist militia out of government.
The June 21 attack on the Spozhmai Hotel was one of the worst this year, killing 18 people and targeting the wealthy elite who liked to spend Thursday nights dining in the restaurant or relaxing in the popular picnic spot.
As US and Nato combat troops prepare to leave by the end of 2014 and hand over responsibility for security to government troops, many middle class Afghans fear that the violence will get worse and the cash economy will dry up.
Fifteen of Mohammad’s relatives have migrated west – half of them illegally – and most of them in the last year, he says. It is a growing trend among the elite, even if there are no official statistics to prove it.
According to the UN, there are 2.7 million Afghan refugees – a quarter of the world’s refugee population. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says there are at least another two million illegal Afghan migrants.
“We will see a larger number of Afghans fleeing the country,” said Marco Boasso, IOM director in Kabul.
More Afghans left the country than repatriated in 2012, according to the CIA online fact book.
Between January and October, around 27,500 Afghans requested political asylum, according to the UN Refugee Agency – four times the number in 2005 – albeit slightly less than in the same period last year.
As 2014 approaches, Afghans fear that the Western exodus could spark a return to civil war, as seen a few years after Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, or allow the Taliban to regain more territory.
“Everyone is scared of 2014. They think that the other countries... will once again forget Afghanistan. Like after the Soviets, the country was forgotten until 9/11,” said Baran, who also gives a fake name and who works in broadcasting.
In her department, more and more people are leaving.
“Most of the boys get engaged to a girl in Europe. It’s a way to escape. Today, one guy told me ‘I’m getting married’. I asked him ‘Where is your fiancee?’ He told me ‘in Australia’,” said the 25 year old.
Dressed in Western clothes with a pink veil on top of her dark hair, Baran says one sister is already studying in Switzerland and the other is looking for a foreign scholarship.
“Everyone wants to leave, legally or illegally,” she said.
“We are five or six friends. Every day, we talk about it.”
Mohammad says that he is waiting for the right time. His job as a quality control officer gives him a good salary of $2,500 a month. But he has applied for a visa at the the US embassy.
One of his three brothers recently left for the United States, legally but with no intention of returning. The youngest is leaving soon to study in Britain.
“Life is limited in Kabul. That’s why we feel unhappy,” Mohammad explained.
“Life is too short to keep trying. Here, you choose a career, something happens, and you become useless. You either fight, hide or do nothing.”
The US embassy told AFP that the number of non-immigrant visa interviews “has remained static over the past year” but the French consulate said demand was up for Schengen visas from all member countries of the area in Europe operating as a single immigration zone that have missions in Afghanistan.
Illegal migration is another option. People smugglers charge $20,000 for plane tickets and visas. The overland route to Europe, via Iran and Turkey, is fraught with dangers.
Shaharzad Akbar, president of 1400 – a political movement of young Afghans – confirms that middle class people working in the aid economy are worried.
“One of the things that the government must do is reassure people,” he said.
Otherwise, the brain drain coupled to a decline in international aid could spell catastrophic consequences for a country that needs to extricate itself from the cycle of 30 years of war.