Twice the Taliban tried to kill Khyber Mashal (pseudonym). Their first attempt was in 2009, when the Afghan scientist was working on a development project for the US Agency for International Development in Gardez, a city in southeastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban fighters they planted a bomb under his office, but Mashal was away on a short trip to Germany. Five colleagues, four Afghans and the Nepalese security chief of the office died in the blast. Then, in July 2019, when Mashal was working for the Afghan Ministry of Education, a suicide bomber staggered in front of his car in Kabul. “He looked drunk,” he says. A shrewd policeman felt the man and removed his jacket loaded with explosives.
Why are the Taliban so eager to eliminate him? “Because they are unscientific”says Mashal. “Educated people are targeted because we have transformed the country”. His past affiliation with a US organization added to the danger.
Mashal left Afghanistan with his wife in December 2020 for a one-year scholarship at a German university. Now, after the rapid takeover of the country by the Taliban, many other scientists are trying to join the exodus and their colleagues abroad are trying to help.
Afghanistan has come a long way since the last time the Taliban ruled from 1996 to 2001 under a harsh interpretation of sharia law in which he deprived women of civil liberties and summarily executed intellectuals and others who opposed their ideology. After the ousting of the Taliban, Afghan higher education institutions went from a handful to more than 100 and women entered the workforce en masse.
The leaders of the victorious Taliban insist they have moderated their views, even as they vow to reset the Sharia law. But few Afghans are willing to take these reassurances literally. Recently, in 2016, an attack by suspected Taliban fighters on the American University of Afghanistan killed 13 people and injured more than 50.
The achievements that women have made in Afghan society “They will vanish and be eliminated”, predicts an engineer from the University of Avicenna, a private institute opened in Kabul in 2010, who asked to remain anonymous because he says his life is in danger.
“The future is very dark” for scholars who remain in Afghanistan, says Mohammad Assem Mayar, a water management expert at Kabul Polytechnic University who had worked with scientists from the University of California, Irvine, and the US Geological Survey to model flood risk in Afghanistan .
Mayer recently found help at the University of Stuttgart, but colleagues abandoned in Afghanistan fear for the next few days. Avicenna’s engineer, who has collaborated with US researchers, says she and her family had to abandon their apartment in Kabul earlier this week.
“The Taliban were looking for us from door to door”, He says. They found temporary refuge in a friend’s house. She and her family applied for US visas 6 years ago but are still waiting for a decision. Now he is counting on colleagues in the United States to pull the strings on their behalf. The return of the Taliban, he says, has not left them “no hope” to survive in Afghanistan.
“It’s really hard to see what’s happening now.”
Alex Dehgan, Conservation X Labs