WASHINGTON - On the eve of the Soviet invasion almost 26 years ago, I left Afghanistan as a young man in search of a better life. Recently, I returned to my native land for the first time and found that many bright and ambitious young people have been following in my footsteps, creating a brain drain that will make it much harder to rebuild Afghanistan as a democratic and economically viable nation.
While in Kabul on a project for the Rand Corporation, the nonprofit research organization where I now work, I saw young men lining up in the passport office and at embassies to get documents needed to leave Afghanistan. When I asked university students whether they want to stay in Afghanistan or go to another country, an overwhelming majority said they want to emigrate.
One of the greatest challenges in Afghanistan is to halt or at least seriously reduce this brain drain and attract talented Afghans to return. But how?
Talented Afghans are leaving - and few are returning from abroad - because insurgent attacks, threats and criminal activities are still common. As long as Taliban remnants and criminals continue to kill and terrorize Afghans, the nation will not be an attractive place for young people to build their futures.
In addition, Kabul lacks a steady supply of electricity and clean water. The city's air is choked with dust and pollution from diesel fuel that is used to run electric generators and from the huge number of cars crammed into a city designed to sustain only a fifth of its roughly four million inhabitants.
Afghans with an education and the skills in greatest demand know they can earn far more and live far better abroad. For example, university professors make less than $2 per hour in Afghanistan, and licensed physicians make about $100 a month working in a government hospital.
To stem the brain drain and entice professional Afghans to return, the United States and the international community need to make Afghanistan a better place to live.
First, security needs to be improved. This will require an intensified effort to train and supply Afghan security forces to maintain peace and order on their own, so they are not permanently dependent on U.S. and NATO forces. In addition, the United States needs to give Afghans concrete assurances that America is their long-term security partner.
Second, the United States need to work with Afghans to develop a long-term development plan for the nation, and back it with a multibillion-dollar financial commitment lasting at least 10 years. If it can hasten a real peace, this investment in creating a thriving Afghan economy would cost less than spending on continued warfare.
Third, alternative livelihoods must be found for farmers now growing poppies, the biggest cash crop in Afghanistan and a major source of heroin sold around the world. The illegal drug trade fosters corruption, instability, and disrespect for government and the rule of law.
Fourth, a system of Afghan government accountability and good governance needs to be established to ensure that U.S. aid is being spent effectively, that corruption is eliminated and that programs are in place to improve living conditions and opportunities for the Afghan people. This means bringing readily available electricity, clean water, better roads and new jobs to Afghanistan.
Finally, neighboring countries need to be pressured to stop jockeying for more influence in Afghanistan.
While Iraq dominates the news and is getting far more U.S. money and military manpower than Afghanistan, it is important to remember that Afghanistan remains a nation in need of U.S. help, and faces a continued threat from remnants of the Taliban forces that once made it a haven for Osama bin Laden and other international terrorists.
I'm glad I chose to come to the United States and become an American citizen. But I recognize that Afghanistan needs its most promising young people to stay at home today to build a better tomorrow. By stepping up efforts to bring security, democracy, equality and economic opportunity to Afghanistan, the United States can slow the brain drain that is weakening my native land. Both America and Afghanistan would be better off as a result.
Obaid Younossi is a senior analyst at the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on February 9, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.