While many Afghans have desperately sought ways to flee the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan, a handful of former Afghan government officials returned to Kabul this week to be welcomed by the Taliban.
Farooq Wardak, former minister of education, is the highest-level former official to return.
"A person's dignity is in his own country. … I feel dignified and proud in my country," Wardak said, with two Taliban officials at his side, after landing Wednesday at Kabul airport.
Among the former officials who have returned to Afghanistan over the past 10 days are a former deputy minister of transportation, a director of the state-run electricity company, an official from the national security council, and even a Defense Ministry spokesman who for years called the Taliban "enemies of Afghanistan" during his routine Taliban casualty updates.
"Too many people — former ministers, governors and members of parliament — have reached out to us expressing their desire to return to their home country," Abdul Haq Wasiq told VOA. Wasiq had been named spokesman for a commission the Taliban created last month to facilitate the return of prominent Afghans residing abroad.
The commission is headed by the Taliban's minister of mining, while its public relations wing is run by Anas Haqqani, younger brother of Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani.
The Taliban have endeavored to make good use of each high-profile returnee.
In addition to filming the returnees at Kabul airport and then spreading short videos on social media, senior Taliban officials also met with them for photo opportunities.
"We welcome you, and we're happy that today we're in a peaceful environment [of brotherhood] in our own country," Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told a small group of returnees in a video released by the Taliban on Wednesday.
Search for legitimacy
More than nine months since seizing power and declaring Afghanistan an Islamic emirate, the Taliban have defied domestic and international calls to form an inclusive government, appointing a Taliban-only government and not appointing women to the Cabinet.
No country has officially recognized the Taliban's de facto government so far.
"I think the Taliban are using this [the return of prominent Afghans] to their advantage because it sort of gives them some sort of internal legitimacy, where the return of these politicians proves that they are open to having an inclusive system," Obaidullah Baheer, an Afghan activist, told VOA.
Taliban officials have not indicated whether the former Afghan officials will have a place in the Taliban government.
Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada, the ultraconservative cleric who has held the position since 2016 but has stayed out of public view, has dissolved Afghanistan's elections commissions, and no political parties are registered in the country.
"They return to their homes, not to work for the government," Wasiq, the Taliban spokesman, said of the latest returnees, adding that the Taliban gave them "immunity cards" to ensure they would not be detained because of their past jobs.
Some perceive the former government officials' return as a declaration of allegiance to the Taliban's emirate.
The August 2021 collapse of the former Afghan government prompted an exodus of tens of thousands of Afghans, among them senior government officials, lawmakers, journalists and human rights activists.
While the United States, Canada and Germany have taken in thousands of Afghan refugees and asylum-seekers over the past several months, large numbers of Afghans remain scattered across several countries in the region, their residential status still uncertain.
Former President Ashraf Ghani has sought humanitarian asylum in the United Arab Emirates, but many of his top political allies and government officials have stayed in Turkey.
"I will not return to the terror village the Taliban have made for our people," Rahmatullah Nabil, a former director of Afghanistan's intelligence agency, told VOA.
Nabil alleges that some former officials have gone back to Afghanistan for personal business interests.
"They return to retain their properties and assets," he said, adding that during the sudden collapse of the Afghan government, many individuals could not sell their properties or transfer their assets abroad.
Prominent women staying away
Taliban officials say all former officials are allowed to return to Afghanistan.
Some, however, challenge the invitation.
"What should I return to? The Taliban did not even allow me to enter my workplace where I served for more than 12 years," said Asila Wardak, a former Afghan diplomat.
Now living in the U.S., Wardak told VOA she would have no means of earning a living under the Taliban.
"Will Taliban leaders like Muttaqi, Haqqani and others sit with us, women, to discuss our problems?"
The Taliban have fired all female government employees except health workers and teachers and have shut secondary schools for girls.
In late February, Zarifa Ghafari, the former mayor of Maidan Shahr, the capital of Wardak province, and a 2020 recipient of the International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. State Department, returned to Afghanistan, saying, "I want to be among my people and serve."
Two weeks later, Ghafari left the country again and started criticizing the Taliban regime for its policies toward women.
Last month, Ghafari described Afghanistan as "a prison for women" and challenged a senior Taliban official to bring his own daughters to the country.