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Afghans seek their own exit strategy

The wealthy are buying homes abroad and moving money out of Afghanistan amid concern about what will happen after foreign troops leave in 2014. The less wealthy sometimes go the illegal route.

April 02, 2013|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • Nabil Ahmad, with his wife, Rohina, holding Rizwan, 6 months, would like to keep working in Kabul if he can get his wife and children to safety. The Afghan couple also have a 2-year-old son named Ali.
Nabil Ahmad, with his wife, Rohina, holding Rizwan, 6 months, would like… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

KABUL, Afghanistan — Nabil Ahmad was at his desk at a logistics support firm last spring when an explosion ripped through the office.

Windows shattered. The ceiling collapsed. "I thought it was an earthquake — or the end of the world," the Kabul native said.

At 26, Ahmad, who favors Western suits and now works for a cellphone service provider, has never known a time when his country was not at war. But he's a father now, with a 2-year-old and an infant to think about.

"I don't want to put my sons in the position that I was growing up," he said. "I want to get my family out."

Like many Afghans, Ahmad is desperately seeking an exit strategy before most foreign troops leave next year.

A recent study warned of a "contagious pessimism" among Afghan business and political leaders and the urban middle class. "Crucially, there are indications of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Fear of instability in 2014 is driving emigration of the very people and money that could prevent instability," says the report by the development consultant STATT.

The wealthy are buying second homes abroad and moving huge amounts of money out of Afghanistan, fearing that security will deteriorate and the economy will collapse. Others are applying to study overseas, seeking invitations from relatives abroad or risking their lives trying to get into countries illegally.

If he can get his wife and children to safety, Ahmad would like to keep working here. He has been trying to arrange a trip to Europe and figures the family can apply for asylum once they get there. But obtaining visas is almost impossible.

Some travel agents say they can arrange invitation letters from families in far-off countries to support visa applications. Others claim to have embassy contacts who will issue visas under the table. But it's expensive and they don't always deliver.

Decades of conflict and natural disasters have driven waves of Afghans to depart in search of safer, more prosperous lives. In one of the most dramatic refugee crises of the 20th century, millions fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the 1990s civil war that eventually gave rise to the repressive Taliban regime. Those migrating included much of the country's intellectual elite, some of whom resettled in the United States and Europe.

Although a large number have returned to Afghanistan since U.S.-led forces drove the Islamist militants from power in 2001, the rate has slowed. For the first time in a decade, officials with the International Organization for Migration believe that more Afghans left their country last year than moved back.

Prices for high-end real estate in Kabul have plummeted by as much as 50% as members of the business and political elite scramble to move their families and assets out of the country.

"Everything has stopped," said Elyas Faizi of Blue House Real Estate. "No one can sell. No one is buying."

Some of his clients are snapping up apartments and villas in Dubai on the Persian Gulf, where wealthy Afghans have long sought sanctuary. The number of Afghans buying property there jumped in 2011 and 2012, many paying in cash, according to local brokers.

"I think they wanted to have a Plan B in place," said Parvees Gafur, chief executive of Propsquare Real Estate in the United Arab Emirates.

At least $4.6 billion in cash, the equivalent of about a quarter of Afghanistan's annual economic output, was carried out of the country on flights to Dubai and elsewhere in 2011, according to the central bank.

The government believes that some of the money was diverted from foreign assistance or was the product of illicit drug deals. It now limits to $20,000 the amount passengers can carry. But officials have also noted an increase in overseas bank transfers, said central bank Gov. Noorullah Delawari. No one knows how much more is leaving the country without being declared.

In one of Kabul's new shopping malls, Hajrat, who like many Afghans uses only one name, has been running a cosmetics store since high school. Now in his early 20s, he makes enough money to pay for a car and expensive holidays in Dubai.

He would seem to have every reason to stay. But he plans to invest his savings in another country, one where he doesn't have to "worry about suicide attacks all the time."

"I'm happy until 2014," he said in between counting out a stack of cash for a supplier and offering spritzes of perfume to well-heeled customers. "After that, I don't know where I'm going … but I'm sure I'm leaving."

As many as 40% of Afghan diplomats don't return from overseas postings, according to the parliament's Commission on International Affairs. (The Foreign Ministry says the figure is lower.) Students, athletes and others who travel in an official capacity have also failed to return.

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