Afghan scholar escapes back to UNO, but much is left at Taliban’s mercy


James Knowles

Sufizada captured this image of a chaotic crowd as he prepared to board the plane that would finally fly him to safety. Photo courtesy of Hanif Sufizada.

In a harrowing journey that has been covered by local, national and international news, Hanif Sufizada escaped from Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul in the midst of the Taliban takeover. His escape is noteworthy on its own, yet his expert knowledge can reveal insight into not only the calamitous situation in Afghanistan, but what both he and UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies have been forced to leave behind.

Sufizada is a scholar and an employee of UNO’s Center for Afghanistan Studies (CAS)—he has worked previously as an advisor to the mayor of the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, and under the Afghan government as a whole and the United Nations.

At CAS, Sufizada’s title is Coordinator of Education and Outreach Programs. As the title implies, Sufizada’s job is to oversee educational outreach and partnerships with universities in Central Asia. The goal has been to create new partnerships across Central and Southern Asia.

Sufizada had returned to Afghanistan to assist CAS employees at their office in Kabul—he helped them with their research and attempts to resolve funding shortages.

“We had to explore some new options,” Sufizada says. “I was there to talk to different donor communities, and we were pitching our projects to raise some funds for future activities in Afghanistan.”

They met with a number of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in order to secure funding and build relationships for the Kabul office.

“We did not have many projects…I was there to coordinate all those activities,” Sufizada says.

Sufizada’s trip was not strictly limited to business—he called it “a time to see my family” as well. His mother and siblings live in Afghanistan.

As time went on, however, the priorities of the trip shifted. The Taliban were approaching Kabul at an alarming rate, and the environment was growing increasingly dangerous. Amidst assurances from government officials that Kabul would not fall, Sufizada elected to send his wife and children, who had accompanied him on the trip, back to Omaha. Despite the danger, Sufizada felt obligated to stay and assist the Center. He had been at the CAS office in Kabul just hours before it was destroyed in a car bombing and became the scene of a deadly firefight.

When Sufizada realized he could stay in Kabul no longer, he went to the airport (after finding the US embassy entirely abandoned)—this was the beginning of his tortuous departure from Afghanistan. Six days passed between his arrival at the airport and the moment he landed on Nebraska soil. During this time, he was shot at, caught in a mob and repeatedly frustrated in his efforts to board a plane or speak to any officials, despite having more than adequate documentation. He had little opportunity to sleep save for short naps, right until the night of his return—he prioritized the reunion with his family over immediate rest.

(Note: Sufizada intricately recounted his journey in writing here, and was interviewed by Larry Madowo for CNN One World and Robyn Curnow for CNN. In light of this, and out of respect for the struggle that Sufizada went through, I kept our discussion of the events brief).

Sufizada may have been able to escape, but much was lost. CAS’s efforts toward education have been halted entirely by the Taliban regime, for the group’s extreme ideology is inherently opposed to the type of progress that CAS instigates.

The partnerships that Sufizada was building with NGOs in order to better serve the Afghan community have, for now, been scuppered. As with CAS, NGOs are ideologically opposed by the Taliban, so their offices and those of other non-profits have been closed. Beyond the poor relationship, NGOs almost always abide by international norms, which include the standard of only interacting with internationally recognized governments. As the Taliban government is only weeks old, loosely structured and has critically ignored human rights norms and the guidelines of various international conventions, it has not yet been legitimized by the international community. Until the Taliban government gains some form of legitimacy, the NGOs that Sufizada and CAS sought to partner with will have little involvement within Afghanistan.

“Once [the Taliban] get that recognition, and we know that they will work under international norms, only then will NGOs resume their activity,” says Sufizada.

Any other activities from CAS have been halted as well—the staff members with the ability to flee have done so, and the Taliban have made it clear to the remainder that their efforts are unwelcome.

“Our offices were already taken by the Taliban,” Sufizada says. “They came and interrogated a lot of our staffers, [asking them] ‘what were you doing’ and ‘who was funding you?’”

Although the Taliban seem to be pursuing international legitimacy and have portrayed themselves as a reformed organization with greater tolerance and loosened restriction, there is little evidence to support these claims. The safety of CAS staffers, among many others, is jeopardized by the Taliban due to their involvement with UNO or other foreign groups.

“They are in danger because they are prominent members of the University of Nebraska,” Sufizada says. “They had worked in Afghanistan with UNO for a long time—now their children are at risk, because of their families, and [the Taliban] say ‘okay, you worked for anAmerican university, you worked on their behalf, which means you worked on behalf of the U.S. government,’ which is why their lives are in danger.”

University employees are not employed by the federal government, but the details don’t seem to matter much to the Taliban—association is enough, and in this case, two degrees of separation isn’t enough distance to be safe from persecution. The Taliban’s current ability to achieve international legitimacy is cast into doubt by the very real fear of retaliation and punishment held by those who could not escape.

“Well, I am very lucky, because there were others who were not able to make it,” Sufizada says.

The CAS staffers, and even Americans and those with green cards have been left behind. Sufizada’s mother and siblings are also trapped in Afghanistan. Sufizada has done everything in his power for them, and CAS has petitioned the US State Department on behalf of dozens of Afghans, but to little avail.

“Although we did whatever we could for them to get them evacuated, it was not possible, given the increasing number of people asking for evacuation,” Sufizada says.

For the stranded Afghans to escape, and for CAS to continue its good work in Afghanistan, the Taliban would have to achieve international legitimacy—as distant as that outcome seems, there is an incentive for the Taliban.

“The Taliban need to work with the international community so that they can receive funds and financing,” Sufizada says. “The UN announced $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan, but that will not be given to the Taliban government, it will be given to the UN and they will redistribute it among people in the form of aid, not in cash.”

It remains to be seen whether such a financial incentive will have a positive effect on the Taliban.

“Of course, if they comply with international standards, and they respect human rights, and they are giving chances to the minority groups in Afghanistan, then sure, they’ll get what they want.”