As the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, on Sunday — and the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the country — the United Nations continues to decline to say whether it is planning to evacuate its thousands of personnel there. Rather, the UN is emphasizing its efforts on providing food, water and other vitals to people who have been flocking in fear and chaos to Kabul as well as to its airport, the main route left for escaping the nation.
The UN’s presence remains in Afghanistan as the United States is both withdrawing its overall troops by the end of August but suddenly sending up to 6,000 troops to Kabul, as President Joe Biden announced on Aug. 14, “to make sure we can have an orderly and safe drawdown of U.S. personnel and other allied personnel, and an orderly and safe evacuation of Afghans who helped our troops during our mission and those at special risk from the Taliban advance.”
A joint statement on the evacuation plan, released on Sunday by the Department of State and Department of Defense, provided more details, saying the US is “completing a series of steps to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport to enable the safe departure of U.S. and allied personnel from Afghanistan via civilian and military flights.”
President Ghani reportedly fled to Tajikistan on Aug. 15 as the Taliban entered Kabul, but he may be heading to a third country, media reports say. The Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar is now the interim government leader. He was quoted as saying, “Now it’s about how we serve and secure our people, and ensure their future/good life to best of ability.” [Update, Aug. 18: Ghani is confirmed to be in the United Arab Emirates.]
Countrywide, the UN employs approximately 3,000 national personnel and 720 international staff members in Afghanistan; more than half of the latter have been working remotely outside the country because of the pandemic. Its political mission, called Unama (UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan), is based in Kabul and led by Deborah Lyons, a Canadian. The mission was established in 2002 to help create a national government after the invasion by the US, in response to the 9/11 attacks on American soil.
Unama’s base in Herat was attacked by the Taliban on July 30, killing a local security official. Unama falls under the purview of the UN’s Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, led by Rosemary DiCarlo, an American and former US diplomat. Its mandate is up for renewal in September, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres may seek a stronger role for the mission as Afghanistan transitions to a new government. As of Sunday, Lyons was said to be in Kabul and working.
On her Twitter page, DiCarlo said on Aug. 12 that she was “deeply concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and noted that yet again, civilians are bearing the brunt of the violence.” Yet the national staff who have been supporting the work of Unama (and other UN agencies) on such sensitive issues as human rights, women’s rights and protection of civilians could be possibly exposed to physical retaliation by the Taliban if they are not given safe haven soon, a source told PassBlue.
Decisions regarding Unama’s presence in the country are a “matter of operational security,” a UN source said, adding that “should the security situation warrant it, staff numbers will be lightened.” Technically, DiCarlo’s office works with the UN’s Department for Safety and Security on such issues. Another source told PassBlue that UN staff working in Afghanistan on human rights and sanctions would be “relocated” as a priority in an evacuation. Such plans for the entire UN system in Afghanistan appear to be piecemeal so far.
In the last week, the UN has released little information about how it will manage its staff in Afghanistan and potentially deal with the Taliban takeover. On Sunday, however, Guterres’s spokesperson released a statement in the early evening, saying: “The Secretary-General is following with deep concern the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan. He urges the Taliban and all other parties to exercise utmost restraint in order to protect lives and ensure that humanitarian needs can be addressed.”
It particularly noted that Guterres was “concerned about the future of women and girls, whose hard-won rights must be protected. All abuses must stop. He calls on the Taliban and all other parties to ensure that international humanitarian law and the rights and freedoms of all people are respected and protected.”
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued a statement minutes before Guterres’s office did, saying: “Members of the humanitarian community – both the UN and non-governmental organizations – remain committed to helping people in Afghanistan. While the security environment is highly complex, humanitarian agencies are staying and delivering to people in need.”
Meanwhile, the Security Council is scheduled to hold a public meeting on Afghanistan on Aug. 16 at 10 A.M. (EDT), at the request of Estonia and Norway. (It will be followed by a closed meeting.) The Council is negotiating a draft statement that could condemn Taliban killing civilians in Afghan cities and “strongly affirms” that the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not recognized” by the UN, among other denunciations, included in an early draft. The text is still being negotiated by the Council, a source told PassBlue, to better reflect the fast-evolving conditions in the country. Guterres is expected to brief at the Council’s meeting. [Update: Aug. 16: The Security Council consensus statement on Afghanistan, with no condemnation of the Taliban.]
Originally, Estonia and Norway wanted the meeting to be held on Sunday, and India, as president of the Council in August, was ready to oblige. But the meeting ended up being scheduled on Monday. One source close to the matter suggested the US wanted more time to evacuate its people before it made public statements at the UN.
On Aug. 13, Guterres held a media briefing at UN headquarters. “Afghanistan is spinning out of control,” he said, drawing attention to the humanitarian crisis triggered by the Taliban takeover in two of the country’s largest cities, Kandahar and Herat, at the time.
“In the last month alone,” he added, “more than 1,000 people have been killed or injured from indiscriminate attacks against civilians, notably in Helmand, Kandahar and Herat provinces. The fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces in urban environments is causing tremendous harm. At least 241,000 people have been forced to flee from their homes. Humanitarian needs are growing by the hour.”
Guterres, who was on vacation for more than three weeks, returned to the UN on Aug. 12. He took one question from the media at the briefing, in which he was asked, “What do you say to those that feel that Afghanistan has been abandoned by the international community?”
“This is the moment to halt the offensive,” he answered. “This is the moment to start serious negotiation. This is the moment to avoid a prolonged civil war or the isolation of Afghanistan.”
He also called on the Taliban “to immediately halt the offensive and to negotiate in good faith in the interest of Afghanistan and its people.” As his spokesperson reiterated throughout the week, Guterres said he was hoping that meetings in Doha, Qatar, with the US, the Taliban, the Afghan government and others “will restore the pathway to a negotiated settlement to the conflict.” That hope was obviously dashed as the Taliban arrived in Kabul.
Guterres ignored a question from a reporter about possible UN plans to evacuate its staff members. Unama’s bases are being guarded by Afghan security forces now that NATO, like the US, is withdrawing this month.
The Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, is holding a special session on Afghanistan on Aug. 23 and working on an extensive, strongly worded draft resolution. Among other matters, it expresses “outrage” over the continuing high level of “unlawful violence” in the country and notes the “central role and shared responsibility” of the UN system, particularly Unama, in peace processes.
Human Rights Watch also released a statement saying that “Afghans at heightened risk of persecution from advancing Taliban forces are in urgent need of evacuation and international protection abroad.”
In his media briefing, Guterres described a country verging further into collapse, saying: “Hospitals are overflowing. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Roads, bridges, schools, clinics and other critical infrastructure are being destroyed. Every day, the conflict is taking an even bigger toll on women and children.
“Continued urban conflict will mean continued carnage — with civilians paying the highest price.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Taliban commanders have been demanding that communities turn over unmarried women to become “wives” for their fighters, which is considered sexual violence — and a possible war crime — by the UN and other human-rights monitors. A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said allegations that the group was forcing women into marriage were false, and that such actions would be contrary to the rules of Islam and violate cultural tradition.
An American who worked in Kabul for a government ministry years ago and still has friends in the city told PassBlue that people are despairing. They heard through the grapevine that President Ghani was preparing to leave office before international news of it broke and “are now facing the shock of being without a government,” the person said.
Jessica Neuwirth of Donor Direct Action, which finances women activists in Afghanistan and elsewhere, said that its partners have been struggling to provide help to women and children in need, many of whom fled the provinces to come to Kabul. “They have been living on the streets, without food or shelter,” Neuwirth said in an email. “With the Taliban takeover of Kabul, we are urgently concerned for the safety of these women and children, as well as the security of our partners who have been helping them survive.”
Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesperson for Guterres, fielded many questions on Afghanistan in his regular media briefings last week, also focusing on the plight of civilians. People are arriving in Kabul and other large cities, he said at one point, “trying to seek safety for themselves and for their families.”
Humanitarian agencies have verified 10,350 internally displaced people who have fled to the capital since July 1, with most people either renting places to stay or moving in with friends or family, “but unfortunately a growing number are staying in the open,” Dujarric noted. The Afghan government has also ordered mosques in Kabul to take in the newly arriving people.
Dujarric said on Aug. 13 that the UN was “evaluating, literally on an hour‑by‑hour basis, the security situation, both in Kabul and in other locations.” No evacuation of UN staff is happening yet, he added, but the UN is assessing “where to lighten the footprint” — which has been done in Kandahar and Herat. He said the UN was “relocating some staff, both international and very much national staff, from different places into Kabul.”
Another UN source, asking for anonymity but familiar with the situation in Afghanistan, said, “Obviously, if security gets so bad our colleagues are at greater risk, some may be relocated to continue working remotely.”
Dujarric has described the UN’s contact with the Taliban as being “critical” to assessing the situation on the ground. Last week, he told reporters that in these conversations, the UN reminds the Taliban of its “responsibility, not only to protect civilian infrastructure but of the inviolability of UN premises, of the need and their responsibilities to ensure that UN staff and UN premises are kept safe.”
In the past, the UN remained and worked in Afghanistan when the Taliban first captured Kabul in 1996, but the political dynamics were different than they are now, since it was before the 9/11 attacks.
As for a complete evacuation of UN staff currently, Dujarric said on Friday, Aug. 13, there were “always contingency plans for the best case and for the worst case. At this point, we are remaining. We’re remaining in Kabul.”
This article was updated on Aug. 15 and Aug. 18 to reflect the fast-changing conditions in Afghanistan.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.