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Activists Focus On Getting As Many Afghans Out Of Afghanistan As Possible

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary prepared to leave Afghanistan over the weekend, he told the BBC that a generation of Afghans are burying their dreams.

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BILAL SARWARY: This is the brain drain. I don't have any other word for it yet. Afghanistan is a country where good people, they don't grow on trees.

INSKEEP: Now many people are at risk, and activists and international organizations are trying to get out as many as they can. Here's NPR's Michele Kelemen.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: David Sedney spent much of his Pentagon and State Department career working on Afghanistan, so it's depressing for him to see how many Afghans who believed in American values are now scrambling to leave.

DAVID SEDNEY: So that's the biggest betrayal. It's not about the money. It's about the people and their hopes and their beliefs. That's what's being shattered.

KELEMEN: Sedney says the U.S. has made many mistakes in the past two decades, and there's plenty of blame to go around. But he has harsh words for the way the Biden administration pulled out, calling it, quote, "pathetic."

SEDNEY: And it's putting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people's lives at risk, and the United States has a duty to rescue every one of those.

KELEMEN: The U.S. says its focus is on getting Americans out and evacuating as many at-risk Afghans as possible before the U.S. airlift operation ends next week, but the Taliban are making clear they don't want more Afghans to leave. The people who are fleeing are the ones that Afghanistan needs to run basic government services, says Annie Pforzheimer, a former diplomat who served in Kabul. They're engineers, Western-educated business leaders, budget experts and many more.

ANNIE PFORZHEIMER: The kind of people who are leaving are the kind of people who never thought they would, who thought that their entire lives were going to be spent building Afghanistan, who genuinely had hope and even excitement about what the future might hold.

KELEMEN: Taliban officials say they won't retaliate against those who helped the West, but Pforzheimer, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is watching their actions, not their words.

PFORZHEIMER: And their actions, as far as harassing people, taking away travel documents and threatening people with guns, beating them along the way to the airport - if they actually meant what they said, they wouldn't be performing the way they're performing. So, no, I don't believe it.

KELEMEN: Nor does Heather Barr, the associate director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. She's hearing some reports of the Taliban going house to house looking for activists and journalists, who she points out are key if there is to be any accountability and transparency in Afghanistan.

HEATHER BARR: You can say goodbye to all of those things if journalists and human rights activists are either fleeing or silenced, which is how things are feeling right now.

KELEMEN: Afghanistan has been dependent on foreign aid, and the U.N. is warning that its programs can't continue unless women are allowed to work and girls can go to school. Barr echoes that.

BARR: The solution is not to evacuate all women and girls. The solution has to be to make Afghanistan a country where women and girls can live.

KELEMEN: But she says the U.N. and countries around the world need to put far more pressure on the Taliban to make it clear to them that this is not the same country they ruled before and educated Afghans might return if the Taliban can create a government that respects basic rights.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.