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'We have to go': Afghans ready to flee country as foreign troops withdraw

As tens of thousands of American troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in time for the 2014 deadline set by the White House, another exodus is gathering pace: Afghans fleeing their country's violence and economic uncertainty. NBC's Mandy Clark reports.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- As tens of thousands of American troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in time for the 2014 deadline set by the White House, another exodus is gathering pace: Afghans fleeing their country’s violence and economic uncertainty.

“The international community is leaving and we are right behind them,” Khalid Gul, a 23-year-old university student, said in a trendy Kabul café. “Ninety percent of Afghans, they want to leave Afghanistan for the same reason: education and instability.” 

He and his friends frequently discuss how they would leave and where they would go. Their top choices are America, Canada and Europe.

“If Americans – the soldiers and the troops – leave here we will have no proper security and we will have the Taliban here again,” Shorab Shinwari, a 21-year-old IT expert, said.

Rahmat Gul / AP

More than ten years after the beginning of the war, Afghanistan faces external pressure to reform as well as ongoing internal conflicts.

The threat of political upheaval is another worry, with the presidential election scheduled for April next year.

And as international funding dries up and with many international companies due to shut down after the departure of foreign troops, Afghanistan’s economy is set to shrink dramatically. Foreign embassies are also being scaled down. 

“Fear of instability in 2014 is driving emigration of the very people and money that could prevent instability,” STATT, an NGO that does research and polling, said in its January 2013 Afghan Migration in Flux report. “Most foresee a future of conflict, instability and chaos as fait accompli for the country.”

Some Afghans scrambling to get out any way they can are paying $30,000 to 50,000 on the black market for fake passports and passage to another country, an exorbitant sum in a country where average annual income is estimated to be under the $500 a year. A recent Afghan police raid picked up dozens of false Canadian, Pakistani and Afghan passports and numerous forged visas. 

Meanwhile the rural poor – farmers and laborers – have fewer options. If they are forced to move because of violence, they often end up unemployed in refugee camps, which many find shameful.

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Afghan refugee Abdulkareem Khan, 80, smokes a cigarette while watching his sheep, not pictured, feeding in a field on the on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, on April 3. Abdulkareem, a shepherd from Afghanistan's north-eastern city of Kunduz, fled the violence in his hometown in 2007 along with 22 members of his family and 60 sheep and took refuge in Pakistan.

Ali, a herder from Ghanzi province, has been in Kabul for three weeks living on handouts. He said he will probably return to the violent territory because “it is better than this life,” referring to living like a refugee. 

Afghans already make up the biggest refugee population in the world at almost 3 million, with waves having left during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and again during the country’s civil war a decade later, according to the UNHCR.

Some 5.7 million Afghans returned in the first few years after the 2001 U.S.-led intervention that toppled the Taliban regime, hopeful that living conditions in their country were improving.

With peace and prosperity remaining elusive, the tide of migrants shifted again.  In 2011, more people fled Afghanistan than in any other year since the start of the decade-long war, according to the latest statistics published by the UNHCR in January 2012.

 Nearly 36,000 Afghans applied for political asylum worldwide, but the true number is likely higher because so many are smuggled out and impossible to count. 

“This last 10 years was an extraordinary period ... [which saw] an extraordinary amount of focus and support for Afghanistan, which is not going to happen again,” said Loftullah Najafizada, head of current affairs at the Afghan news channel, TOLO TV.

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Afghan refugee children play with tires on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, on March 1. Pakistan hosts over 1.6 million registered Afghans, the largest and most protracted refugee population in the world.

“We have to understand that as a poor South Asian country we have to face some of these challenges which are pretty natural to a war-torn country coming out of decades of conflict. You cannot skip that challenge; you have to walk through it and it takes time,” he said.

Shorab Shinwari and his friends aren’t waiting.

“I thought our country was going to develop, I was hoping to live here and have a good future,” Shinwari said. “Nobody wants to live in such a country where there is war. Everyone wants to have a good life.”

“I can do nothing for Afghanistan so I have to leave Afghanistan,” his friend, Khalid Gul, agreed. “We have to go. That is the full and final answer.”

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