Is Afghanistan turning back into a ‘black hole’ of science after the Taliban seizure of power? What has been built up in twenty years is in danger of crumbling.
In 2001, science in Afghanistan lay defeated. The extremist Taliban were only interested in Koranic studies. All other scientific research was labelled dangerous or useless. Researchers were mostly intellectual egotists who would threaten and undermine the legacy and values of Allah.
There was not a single woman to be found in the scientific desert that the Taliban left behind twenty years ago. When science shrivels into religious tyranny, only men speak the mullahs and the students they teach. Then there is no place for telescopes and laboratories, for the search for new knowledge.
This black scenario threatens to unfold again. Sharia, the strict Islamic law, is once again becoming the standard of things for science. “The future of science and scientists in Afghanistan looks bleak,” said Mohammed Assem Mayar, a water management expert at the Polytechnic University of Kabul.
His research into flood risks in Afghanistan has already come to a standstill. “Scientists around the world saw Afghanistan in 2001 as a black hole after five years of Taliban rule, and that is now returning,” said Najibullah Kakar, a geotechnical engineer who first developed a seismological network in the country in 2014. Kakar now works in Germany at a research institute in Potsdam.
Colleagues express similar warnings in the international scientific journals Science and Nature. “Everything that has been built up in twenty years is in danger of being lost,” concludes Attaullah Ahmadi, until recently professor of health care at Kateb University in Kabul.
In 2001, Afghanistan had only a handful of higher education institutions that were guided by the Taliban’s religious conservatism. “Due to the scientific devastation, there was no longer a research culture,” said Kenneth Holland, who works at Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India, and is president of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) in Kabul from 2017 to 2019.
But after the fall of the Taliban, the number of universities and colleges, supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid skyrocketed to more than a hundred, and there was room for women. In 2001 there were 8,000 students, in 2018, more than 170,000, a quarter of whom were women.
From geology, mining to water management, research flourished. In 2011, this resulted in 71 publications for the international scientific database Scopus, in 2019, there were already 285 publications.
Empty lecture halls
The Afghan Academy of Science (ASA), universities, and other high education institutions are closed or slowly opening again. The lecture halls remain empty because no one knows what the Taliban are planning to do with science education.
Women still seem welcome, but they have to comply with strict dress rules and are separated from men, behind a curtain.
Salaries and tuition fees are no longer paid. International aid has been suspended as countries and organizations want to know what remains of the scientific landscape in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
Many researchers do not want to wait for that. A veritable exodus of scientists has begun, a brain drain that is robbing the country of knowledge and research. At least two hundred academics and their families have already emigrated to the United States, Canada, and Germany, among other places.
Promising students are also on the run. Among them were the young women who caused a furore with their robot team and the group of girls who won a competition in astronomy knowledge last year. The robot team is in Mexico, the budding astronomers have been transferred to Qatar.
So far, 164 educational institutions in the world have taken care of Afghan scientists. Scholars at Risk (SAR), an international network of more than 500 renowned educational institutions in 40 countries, is deeply concerned about all the scientists and students still in the country. She calls on European governments and the European Union to ‘save their lives’.
“All these people have fought for 20 years for a new Afghanistan, based on international law and knowledge and looking forward,” said Rose Anderson, director of SAR in New York. “These are not the Taliban’s values, and their lives are in danger. We received more than seven hundred requests for help in August alone.”
These are people with a field that rubs off with Sharia, women who have actively fought for their rights. Others are blacklisted because they have studied abroad or had connections there. “Many of them are in hiding and are trying to get out of Afghanistan,” Anderson said.
According to Kenneth Holland, researchers who worked at the American University of Afghanistan are especially at risk. The Taliban already targeted the institute in 2016. Thirteen people, including staff members and students, were killed in an attack.
All 60 of the AUAF’s non-Afghan personnel have been evacuated, but only 20 of the 400 local staff have been taken to safety. “Another 800 students and more than a thousand graduates could become the target of revenge attacks,” Holland fears.
Another group also runs an extra risk of prosecution. These are scientists and students from the Hazara community, a Shia, Farsi-speaking minority. Nasrin Husseini, one of two women who graduated from Kabul University (veterinary medicine) in 2010, is very gloomy.
She moved to Canada years ago because she encountered too much opposition in her own country, even after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, because she is a woman and belongs to the Hazara. “With the Taliban back in power, we are going back a hundred years,” Husseini said. “Every academic I know is terrified and wants to get out of Afghanistan.”