Mohammad comes from a good family and has a good job at a US construction company. However, one by one, he has watched friends and relatives leave Afghanistan — the vast majority in the past 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,” Mohammad said in 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 holidays abroad.
The snag is 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 like to spend Thursday nights in the restaurant.
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, he said. 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, making up one-quarter of the world’s refugee population. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says there are at least another 2 million illegal Afghan migrants.
“We will see a larger number of Afghans fleeing the country,” the IOM’s Kabul director Marco Boasso said.
More Afghans left the country than repatriated this year, the CIA online factbook says.
Between January and October, about 27,500 Afghans requested political asylum, data from the UN Refugee Agency show, which is four times the number in 2005.
As 2014 approaches, Afghans fear that the Western exodus could spark a return to civil war, as seen 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 gave 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,’” the 25-year-old said.
Baran said one sister is studying in Switzerland and the other is looking for a foreign scholarship.
Mohammad says he is waiting for the right time. His job as a quality control officer gives him a good salary of US$2,500 a month. However, he has applied for a visa at the US embassy.
One of his three brothers recently left for the US, 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 said.
The US embassy told reporters that the number of non-immigrant visa interviews “has remained static over the past year,” but the French consulate said demand was up for visas from all EU countries that have missions in Afghanistan.
Illegal migration is another option. People smugglers charge US$20,000 for plane tickets and visas.
Observers says the brain drain, coupled with a decline in international aid, could spell catastrophic consequences for a country that is trying to extricate itself from the cycle of 30 years of war.