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Afghanistan Exodus: Tens of Thousands Flee Taliban, ISIS Violence

Image: Kabul bus station.
Afghan men stand in front of buses headed toward western Nimruz province in a Kabul station. Fazul Rahim / NBC News

KABUL, Afghanistan - Business has never been better for Mohammad Nassir, a manager in the Afghan capital’s main bus station. And it fills him with grief.

“The young generation is leaving the country,” said Nassir, who works for Tolo Bus Services. “I see families saying goodbye to their loved ones for the last time and it breaks my heart.”

“I should be happy because for me business is booming — it has gone up by four times — but I am not happy at all,” he said.

Nassir is witnessing an Afghan exodus as civilians across the country flee spiraling violence and uncertainty. Until two months ago, between 15 and 20 buses, each carrying up to 55 passengers, set off for the border province of Nimruz every day. That number has jumped to between 70 and 80 buses, Nassir said.

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The increase in bus trips to the Iranian border coincides with the rising tide of Afghans trying to reach Europe, which is already struggling to respond as hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees from Africa and the Middle East risk their lives to settle there. While there is no way of knowing exactly how many of the passengers are not intending to come back, the bus manager believes it is the majority.

Related: ISIS-Linked Fighters Tighten Grip in Afghanistan

Changing ticket prices hint at this trend. A trip that used to cost around 500 afghanis ($7.80) per seat now commands a price of 900 afghanis ($14.10), he said. The increased revenue makes up for the fact that buses are returning mostly empty, Nassir added. In other words, most travelers are not coming back.

"This country has become like an illness that has no cure"

The bus station in the west of Kabul has become the launching pad for tens of thousands trying to find a better life outside of Afghanistan — or simply escape death at the hands of extremists, criminals and even pro-government forces.

Related: 'Culture of Guns' Drives Afghan Violence

While many are settling in neighboring countries, a growing number are making the arduous trip to Europe. According to the United Nation’s refugee agency UNHCR, 77,731 Afghans applied for asylum in Europe in the first six months of 2015 — up from 24,154 who did so in the same period in 2014. Afghans are second only to Syrians in claiming asylum in Europe, the UNHCR numbers show.

And on Thursday, the government's Afghan government's Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations said it had witnessed "unprecedented" levels of migration toward European countries.

Image: Father-of-two Mohammad Asif
Father-of-two Mohammad Asif is fleeing Afghanistan in search of a better life in Europe. Fazul Rahim / NBC News

Father-of-two Mohammad Asif, who said he was setting out for Europe, told NBC News he did not want to leave his home and family but he did not have a choice.

“I love my wife and kids, but I have to try and stay alive for them,” the 26-year-old from central Logar province told NBC News from aboard a bus set to leave for Nimruz. “If you have any links with the government or even go to school or university then the Taliban and now [ISIS] will kill you. On the other hand, if you have any connections to the Taliban then the government militias will kill you.”

Asif, who earned a college degree in agriculture, has lost hope in Afghanistan's future.

“This country has become like an illness that has no cure,” he said.

Violence is spiraling nearly 15 years after U.S.-backed troops toppled the Taliban and helped install a pro-western government in Kabul. The country’s security forces are struggling to keep the peace and hold ground secured by foreign troops that are now leaving the country.

In the first six months of the year civilian casualties rose one percent to a record 4,921 — 1,592 killed and 3,329 injured. These numbers have been rising steadily, and are up dramatically from the first six months in 2009, when 1,439 civilians were killed or maimed.

Many others are trying to carve out the same path. Applications for passports — a prerequisite for a visa and any legal travel abroad — jumped to an average of 5,000 a day in August, according to the International Organization for Migration. That’s up from only 1,000 per day a day a year earlier.

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Even those in charge of protecting and representing Afghanistan abroad are claiming asylum after traveling to the West on government business.

“Some of our diplomats just do not return when their term ends and that includes senior diplomats like ambassadors,” an senior Foreign Ministry official told NBC News on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “That is especially true for diplomats who are stationed in Europe.”

“We have the same problem with officials visiting European countries and they vanish,” he added. “There is hardly any official visit by Afghan officials to Europe or the U.S. that we do not have an incident of some vanishing or attempting to apply for asylum.”

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It isn’t only diplomats. In September 2014, Col. Enayatullah Barack, who was scheduled to be Afghanistan's flag-bearer at a NATO summit in Wales, claimed asylum upon landing in the U.K. That was followed by three army officers who disappeared from a training program in the U.S. later in the month. They were eventually apprehended.

Ahmad Shekib isn't an official or public figure but he is part of Afghanistan's small educated middle class. Even with a well-paid job with an international agency in Kabul, Shekib started to worry in 2010 that the Taliban was gaining a foothold in parts of the country that had rarely seen militant violence.

“My family wanted me to get married and stay in Kabul, but I didn’t want to make that commitment,” he said. “Things were getting worse every day.”

Related: Taliban Seeks Return to Mainstream

He made up his mind to emigrate after witnessing a suicide car bomb blast on a street in Kabul last November.

“It was a huge shock and right then I decided it was time for me to leave,” he said.

Shekib flew to Germany directly and claimed asylum. He is among nearly 10,479 Afghans to have done the same the first six months of the year, according to Germany's government. He is taking language classes and hopes to settle there permanently.

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“I speak with my mom and my brother every day and there is hardly any day they do not tell me a new sad story,” he said. “I know it in my heart that my future is not [in Germany], but I also now there is no future in Afghanistan.”

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