The journey from Afghanistan to Princeton was not easy for Lutf Ali Sultani.
Sultani worked as a journalist for a newspaper during the two-decade period when the U.S.-backed Afghan government supported freedom of the press. After the U.S. began bringing troops home in August 2021, the government fell to hardline Taliban fighters. Sultani was supposed to be evacuated, but that was delayed after a deadly explosion close to the airport.
So he continued working, covering a women’s protest on Sept. 8. When two of his colleagues were detained by the Taliban, Sultani went to the police station to seek their release. Instead, Sultani was beaten and taken to a small cell with 17 other people. After his paper reported the arrests, he was released, but his two colleagues were tortured to death, he said.
“Local journalists in Afghanistan aren’t able to publish today, but they can send out information anonymously, and Afghan journalists in exile in Europe and the U.S. can share their reports.”
— Lutf Ali Sultani
“I realized that the country was drawn deep into crisis and there was no place for those who believe in modern values such as freedom of speech, human rights, and democracy anymore,” Sultani said. He managed to leave on Oct. 17, on a flight organized by the U.S. State Department and the Qatari government.
Sultani was brought to a military base in New Jersey, and from there he was hired by Princeton as a fellow with the Afghanistan Policy Lab, run by the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). Sultani and a handful of other fellows are tasked with researching one of four key areas of policy regarding Afghanistan: how to provide humanitarian aid, how to create civic spaces, how to ensure equality for women, and how to heal the nation.
When the airlifts from Kabul were under way, Amaney Jamal had just taken over as dean of SPIA. She knew that many SPIA alumni had worked in Afghanistan over the years and that they were worried about their colleagues on the ground. Meanwhile, people Jamal knew in academia and in think tanks were telling her that policy schools needed to play a role in helping Afghan evacuees find new purpose in the U.S.
Jamal said she decided that the University’s motto — “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity” — “was not abstract theory. We had to model those words. We knew a conversation would happen in exile. If we could secure a group of displaced Afghans here to influence policy debates, that would be valuable.”
With help from Princeton’s Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination, the Afghanistan Policy Lab was officially unveiled in the spring of 2022, with work beginning in earnest in the fall. Along with a simultaneous program for Ukrainian scholars who had been displaced by Russian invasion (see PAW, February 2023), the Afghanistan project “was the first time we had done something outside the box like this,” Jamal said.
Adela Raz, who had served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States and to the United Nations, was tapped as the lab’s director. Growing up in Afghanistan, Raz was forced to study at home for five years because the Taliban wouldn’t let girls attend school. “I read encyclopedias, magazines, old newspapers — whatever was available,” she said. Later, Raz earned degrees in the U.S. from Simmons University and Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
Under Raz, a small number of fellows, such as Sultani, will work full time for 12- to 18-month terms, conducting research, writing policy recommendations, and engaging with Princeton students and the wider community through panels and public events. Other fellows include women’s rights advocates Muqadasa Ahmadzai and Storai Tapesh, former Afghanistan Parliament member Naheed Farid, and former government official Gran Hewad.
Another evacuee working with the Princeton lab is Muhammad Idrees Ghairat, who earned two master’s degrees and worked for a variety of international nongovernmental organizations. He said he saw others injured or killed while struggling to get to the airport, and he said it was a hard decision to leave his parents and a disabled sister in Afghanistan. After arriving in the U.S., Ghairat interpreted and taught in Denver before he was hired as a special assistant to Jamal.
The lab’s objective, Raz said, is to produce and share policy recommendations with diplomatic and development officials inside and outside the United States. Part of the lab’s mission will be to “keep the conversation alive,” she added, so that the plight of Afghanistan doesn’t slip from the world’s consciousness.
According to United Nations estimates, the poverty rate under the Taliban may be as high as 97%, and half of the population is in immediate need of humanitarian aid. “Seventy percent of the population in Afghanistan is below the age of 30, and half are women,” Raz said. “It’s dire. It’s as bad as can be.”
In December 2022, the Taliban government officially declared, as advocates had feared, that girls and women would be banned from attending schools and universities. Public execution has returned, music has been banned, and news and entertainment are censored. From what Sultani hears from friends in Afghanistan, “everyone wants to get out. The humanitarian situation is catastrophic right now.”
The one silver lining is that the internet and social media have continued to operate, including WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram. Such channels are crucial for Sultani’s work, which focuses on the possibilities of recreating a civic sphere in Afghanistan — one of the key achievements from the time the Western-backed government was in charge.
“Local journalists in Afghanistan aren’t able to publish today, but they can send out information anonymously, and Afghan journalists in exile in Europe and the U.S. can share their reports,” Sultani said. “They have done really good work.” Sultani said his research will focus on how to bridge journalists inside and outside Afghanistan. He is also publishing a weekly news bulletin.
As for ways of getting around restrictions on teaching girls, Raz said it’s possible to envision efforts that use remote learning.
Because tensions remain raw between the U.S. and the Taliban, participants in the lab understand that it may take a while for their recommendations to be implemented. Countries in the Middle East and Europe may have more space to find creative solutions, said Andrew Moravcsik, the Liechtenstein Institute’s director.
“A core question for the lab — and there are varying opinions on this — is, do we engage with the Taliban or not?” Jamal said. “I hope the lab will remain a place to have that intellectual conversation.”
Raz acknowledged that, in the near term, it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the possibility of improvements in Afghanistan. But over the medium and longer term, she said, “we’re trying to keep that hope.”