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Prominent Young Afghans Press For Change Through Intellectual Soldiering


Many people from Afghanistan have made a decision that is easy to understand. Their country is so troubled that they've left. It's troubled even today, almost 15 years after the U.S. and its allies drove out the Taliban, even though the United States has spent roughly as much in Afghanistan as it did rebuilding Europe after World War II.


So it's no surprise some people seek a better life elsewhere. Maybe the surprise is the story of people who decided to stay. NPR's Philip Reeves spoke to two of them.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: A small boy called Abdul wanders through a traffic jam. He's carrying, on a string, a tin can containing burning seeds. He waves the can around. Smoke gushes out. Abdul moves from car to car, engulfing each in a small cloud. He recites a verse...

ABDUL: (Foreign language spoken).

REEVES: ...About warding off evil. A driver hands him a few pennies. There's a belief among Afghans that smoke from these seeds, a kind of wild rue, protects them against ill fortune. In Kabul these days, there are many small boys with smoldering tin cans. Here, there's no shortage of ill fortune.

These are tough times in Afghanistan. The hope many once invested in its so-called national unity government is evaporating. The head of the U.N.'s Afghan mission said recently it woudl be an achievement if the Afghan government survives this year. Several hundred thousands Afghans, many of them young, have migrated to Europe. Some, thought, are staying home to work for change from within.

MUJTABA PAIKAN: I don't know why I didn't decide to leave this country - instead of leaving, to stay with my people and encourage them to be positive for their future.

REEVES: Mujtaba Paikan is 29 and has two master's degrees. These days, he's applying his skills on a different front. He leads a network of Afghan Civil Society activists seeking to hold the government to account.

PAIKAN: This is the photos. If you see...

REEVES: He has pictures on his laptop of their street protests. When Afghanistan's national unity government was established 2014 after a prolonged dispute over the election results, Paikan supported it. He's changed his mind.

PAIKAN: They made our country darkness from the economic issue, political issue - from the social and everything.

REEVES: Paikan is scathing about the dire shortage of jobs for young Afghans. He says getting a government post is almost impossible unless you have official connections.

PAIKAN: I will show you hundreds of youths that they're applying to government positions. They're well-qualified employees, but they are not selected.

REEVES: Now this is kind of corruption, isn't it?

PAIKAN: Definitely. This is a corruption.

REEVES: Yet, Paikan hasn't given up on democracy.

PAIKAN: We are accepting the mechanism of the government. We're not accepting the people who are in charge for them.

ABDULLAH KHENJANI: I'm too worried about the future of this country.

REEVES: Abdullah Khenjani is unsure of his exact age, but he's also in his late 20s. Khenjani's current affairs editor at Afghanistan's privately-run 1TV.

Under a compromise agreement, Afghanistan has a president, Ashraf Ghani, and a chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah. Afghans also complain that this power-sharing creates a rivalry that contributes to government paralysis.

KHENJANI: The key problem is the lack of coordination between those two leaders. The lack of having a joint vision is the problem.

REEVES: Khenjani believes he must use his voice as a prominent young Afghan to press for change. Others are doing the same, he says.

KHENJANI: We are - intellectual soldiers, we called ourselves.

REEVES: Intellectual soldiering is his perilous work.

PAIKAN: It is dangerous. It's really dangerous, for me at least.

REEVES: Paikan, the civil society activist, says he gets threatening phone calls. He blames these on...

PAIKAN: Influential people and those who are inside the government.

REEVES: For Khenjani, the main threat is from a different direction.

KHENJANI: My picture has been posted five times in the website of the Taliban as a military target.

REEVES: Khenjani's channel, 1TV, is also considered a military target by the Taliban. And so is another outlet, TOLO TV. In January, a bomber killed seven people working with TOLO. Khenjani's resolve is unshaken. He believes intellectual soldiering is all about standing your ground.

KHENJANI: I will never leave this country. The Taliban want us to give up this country and to leave the vacuum for them. And we cannot give them this.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.