A Berkeley Haas MBA Vows To Keep His Wartime Promise

Junaid Lughmani, an MBA student at UC-Berkeley Haas, is a veteran of the Afghanistan war. The best way forward for the the country, he says, is through emerging technologies and entrepreneurship. Photo © Tipping Point Photography

It’s been more than 100 days since the fall of Kabul.

On August 15, as the Taliban encircled Afghanistan’s capital in the pre-dawn hours, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country, allowing the militant group to seize power without resistance. Suddenly, tens of thousands were driven to the country’s borders, trying to escape the impending violence; they also swarmed the airport in Kabul, trying to get on a plane to evacuate with foreign nationals and fellow Afghans who were Western allies.

Thousands were evacuated in subsequent days. Then, on August 26, a suicide attack at the Kabul airport killed 180, including 13 American troops.

Four days later, the U.S. military departed the country for good after 20 years of occupation in Afghanistan.

Junaid Lughmani — former civilian Pashto interpreter, U.S. Army infantry officer, and veteran of the war — is among many in the U.S. distraught by the war’s unsettling end.

“We played a critical role in helping Afghanistan take a step forward,” Lughmani, now a 2023 MBA candidate at University of California-Berkeley Haas School of Business, tells Poets&Quants. “We tried, earnestly, to help break this perpetual cycle of violence that Afghanistan has been caught in since 1979. And for it to end the way that it did …” he pauses, looking down at his shaky hands. Tears well in his eyes.

“I hate war for this. Afghans deserved better. What were the last 20 years for?”

A CLEAR CONSCIENCE

“The horrifying events at the airport in Kabul in August will haunt me forever,” Lughmani continues. “I had been to that airport so many times. It’s been over 100 days since the fall of Kabul, and this nightmare won’t end. But we can’t stop, there are too many people who were left behind.”

Lughmani says that he and other veterans have not forgotten their commitment to the people of Afghanistan.

“We’re going to try to keep our promise to our Afghan allies,” he says. “If I have to sacrifice my business school experience for the mission in Afghanistan, then so be it. At least I will have a clear conscience in my later years.”

‘THIS IS NOT AMERICA’

As the U.S. withdrawal recedes into history, Afghanistan faces a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Over half of the population — nearly 23 million people — faces food scarcity, foreign aid has been halted aside from a few overburdened nonprofits, and the country is facing total economic collapse, as millions of Afghans haven’t been paid in months. More than 3 million Afghan children under the age of 5 are at greatest risk, humanitarian agencies say.

“Every day I feel angry, sad, frustrated, and hopeless,” Lughmani says. “I feel ashamed of what’s happened. This is not America. The government’s reckless withdrawal from Afghanistan does not uphold the values of our nation.”

Lughmani believes that emerging technologies and entrepreneurship may be the best way forward for Afghanistan. Drawn to UC-Berkeley because of the Haas School’s reputation for expertise in blockchain technology and cryptocurrency, he plans to help build the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Afghanistan and Pakistan by empowering entrepreneurs to leverage these emerging technologies.

It’s the best way to effect change at scale, Lughmani says.

“The only hope we have for Afghanistan is to create a self-sustaining society — one that is not dependent on foreign aid,” he says. “I believe that blockchain, cryptocurrency, and the emergence of Web3 offer the promise to eradicate corruption. These tools have the potential to transform societies like Afghanistan and many others in the developing world.”

With Afghan children. Courtesy photo

‘DO SOMETHING, DO SOMETHING’

On August 16, just one day after the Taliban reclaimed power, Lughmani started his first day of his MBA orientation. While it was supposed to be an all-day affair, he didn’t show up until the afternoon. “It had been a chaotic morning speaking with friends and old colleagues, trying to make sense of the speed of the Afghan government’s collapse,” he says. “I had friends in Afghanistan reaching out to me, pleading ‘do something, do something.’ I had no idea what to do, so I reached out to the Haas Veterans Club.”

After a desperate cry for help, Lughmani received text messages, phone calls, and voice notes from members in the Haas Veterans Club, eager to help. Together, they crafted a statement of solidarity with Afghans and got it approved by Berkeley faculty, who took a stand and posted it publicly on LinkedIn. “I couldn’t believe the overwhelming support that I got, not only from fellow veterans, but from faculty,” he says.

“A story needs to be told about this amazing community at Berkeley,” he continues. “I’m incredibly grateful that at this moment in my life — with all that’s happening in Afghanistan — I’m at Haas. They walk the walk here, truly wanting to do good in the world. It’s almost as though the community was intentionally built on the foundation of compassion; my classmates always ask me how they can help Afghanistan.”

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