United Nations staff members in Afghanistan who work for the UN political mission there say it has been failing to protect its national personnel since the Taliban’s sudden takeover of the country on Aug. 15 and as the United States evacuates tens of thousands of Americans and others from the Kabul airport amid deadly terrorist attacks and constant chaos.
Of the Aug. 26 suicide bombings, which murdered 13 American service members and dozens of Afghans, US President Joe Biden said: “To those who carried out this attack, as well as anyone who wishes America harm, know this: We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay. I will defend our interests and our people with every measure at my command.”
The assault at Hamid Karzai International Airport was claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), an affiliate of ISIS. (The US retaliated on Aug. 27 with a drone strike in Nangahar Province, it said, against two ISIS members related to the Kabul attack.)
In a statement, the UN Security Council “condemned in the strongest terms the deplorable attacks near the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on 26 August 2021,” although language stressing that the Taliban should not back “terrorists operating on the territory of any country” was apparently dropped, a diplomat told PassBlue.
The UN said on Aug. 27 that its political mission in Afghanistan, or Unama (UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan), “not only condemned the attack but said that the UN is committed to stay and deliver.”
Meanwhile, UN national staff who want to leave their country continue to feel marooned as the US plans to vacate Afghanistan by Tuesday, Aug. 31. Numerous current and former Unama personnel at its base in Kabul, where the Taliban now rule, as well as staff now outside the country, told PassBlue by phone and WhatsApp since Aug. 15 that there appeared to be “no leadership across the system” of the UN in Afghanistan and that national staff “are alone and petrified,” as one person put it.
On Aug. 25, however, UN Secretary-General António Guterres held a private, virtual meeting with Unama personnel in Kabul, “to outline what the UN system is doing to keep people safe and to keep our operations running,” his spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, told reporters at New York City headquarters. Some national staff have been relocated outside the country, he added, not divulging numbers but noting that “at risk” Afghan personnel may be evacuated, based on criteria that he wouldn’t specify. [Update: Sept. 2: The UN said about 3,000 Afghan personnel remain in the country and about 200 international staff are there.]
One UN person who attended it told PassBlue that national staff “feel devastated” and that the final message to attendees hinted at the possibility of evacuating everyone but that it had to be done discreetly. Guterres reinforced his messaging to UN personnel in a video, saying, in part, “And we are doing everything in our power, namely through the permanent engagement with all relevant actors, and will continue to do so to ensure your safety and well-being, and to find external solutions where they are needed.”
Pakistan’s ambassador, Munir Akram, told reporters at the UN on Aug. 16 that his country was flying out diplomats, employees of international agencies (such as the World Bank) and journalists who want to leave Afghanistan, processing visa applications for them from its embassy in Kabul. Since then, Pakistan said it had ferried thousands of people to its country as a transit point for evacuees’ final destinations. The government tweeted on Aug. 27 that with the World Food Program it is starting a humanitarian-cargo air bridge of nonfood items between Islamabad and Kabul and other places in Afghanistan. Pakistan is also helping to evacuate foreign and national UN personnel, a spokesperson told PassBlue. [Update: Sept. 1: Pakistan said it had evacuated 59 UN personnel but did not provide a breakdown of national or international staff members it had airlifted.]
Pakistan released a statement on Aug. 27, saying that Guterres had a phone call with Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi and “expressed gratitude for Pakistan’s role in facilitating the work and humanitarian mission of UN entities in Afghanistan.” And Qureshi “highlighted the facilitation being provided by Pakistan to the international community in evacuation and relocation efforts.”
Also on Friday, Dujarric gave updates on the work of a few UN agencies in Afghanistan. The WHO has staff in all 34 provinces “monitoring the health situation,” he said at a media briefing, noting that of the approximately 2,200 health facilities being observed, “97 per cent of them remain open and functioning.” But they are running out of medical supplies and the “WHO is not currently in a position to help them.” The UN Development Program is training, for example, “farmers who will help other farmers adopt better planting practices at multiple locations,” Dujarric said. The World Food Program said it reached 80,000 people in Afghanistan this week with “vital food aid.”
Dujarric said of conditions at the Kabul airport after Aug. 31, when the US is supposed to be gone, that it will be incumbent on the Taliban “to ensure that there is . . . security in place for Kabul to have a functioning airport, which is, obviously, critical not only to us but to the Afghan people.”
Afghan staff members who work for Unama and were interviewed for this article — all of whom requested anonymity — from their homes or in hidden locations in Kabul pointed out that international staff were leaving the country while the national staff had to fend for themselves. As of June, Unama had approximately 1,164 staff: 770 Afghan nationals, 298 international staff and 68 UN “volunteers.”
A New York City-based consultant for the UN told PassBlue this week that an Afghan staff member and his family that he knows had applied to leave through the US State Department’s SIV program, or special immigrant visa, but the family has so far no safe way to reach the gates of Kabul airport. A colleague of the Afghan staffer apparently went to the airport with valid papers but returned home after trying to enter the airport for 36 hours.
The UN announced on Aug. 18 that up to 100 international staff working for the UN system, which has 20 entities countrywide, were being temporarily relocated to Almaty, Kazakhstan, to operate in an office provided by that government. “Personnel will return to Afghanistan as conditions permit,” Dujarric said. The two UN planes based at the Kabul airport have been damaged, so a Russian contractor flew the UN personnel to Almaty. The UN has no peacekeeping or other security personnel at the airport, making such flights risky.
Dujarric said of the remaining international staff in Kabul: “We are continuing to look at possible relocations of international staff, also, obviously, of national staff that are at risk. But I think it bears saying again that the UN . . . will remain in Afghanistan.”
The Coordinating Committee for International Staff Unions and Associations circulated a petition on Aug. 23 calling on Guterres to “protect UN staff in Afghanistan”; the same day, the UN announced that it flew 120 additional people from Kabul to Almaty, the second-such announced flight since the Taliban takeover. Passengers included UN personnel but mostly staff from nongovernmental organizations that work with the UN in Afghanistan, Dujarric said in an email. The international staff now working in Almaty are mostly back-office people, he said.
Deborah Lyons, the head of Unama, was also evacuated to Almaty. “She has been extremely focussed on dealing with critical Member States . . . who may be able to assist the UN in terms of its security and safety of staff, both national and international,” Dujarric noted in a media briefing.
Lyons warned the Security Council on Aug. 6 that “Afghanistan is now at a dangerous turning point,” adding: “Ahead lies either a genuine peace negotiation or a tragically intertwined set of crises: an increasingly brutal conflict combined with an acute humanitarian situation and multiplying human rights abuses.”
As for the thousands of national staff working for the UN systemwide in Afghanistan, Dujarric told reporters soon after the Taliban took control: “First of all, I can tell you we are doing our utmost to safeguard our national staff and their dependents, whether that’s having those who will stay in country or those who may come out. The big difference between working for the United Nations and a nation is that we are not a nation, right? We are not a nation that issues visas. So, there are all sorts of administrative hurdles that have to be negotiated and discussed. But the national staff is very much on the forefront of what we are trying to do every day.”
This week, a Taliban spokesperson reportedly told women to stay home from work, as some of its fighters haven’t been trained very well and may “mistreat women,” so one reporter asked Dujarric on Aug. 25 if female UN staff in Kabul have been affected. “What has been very as much front and centre in our discussions with the Taliban is the need to . . . women to be able to work and also to be able to work safely,” he replied. About 10 percent of the UN national personnel are women, so about 300 people.
The Taliban spokesperson later clarified future prospects for women in the country, saying in an interview with The New York Times on Aug. 25, “If they go to school, the office, university, or the hospital, they don’t need a mahram” — male guardian — to accompany them.
Have the Taliban told the UN that it wants it to stay?, a reporter asked Dujarric on the same day. “The short answer is these discussions are ongoing, right, and that there is a recognition of the need for the UN to continue its humanitarian work.”
The highest level of UN contact with the Taliban in Afghanistan is Ramiz Alakbarov, an Azerbaijani and the deputy special envoy, resident and humanitarian coordinator, who has been helping the international staff relocate to Almaty, the UN said.
Politico reported this week that the UN security policy manual states that Guterres, as secretary-general, is the only official who can order evacuation of local staff, and only “in the most exceptional cases in which their security is endangered as a direct consequence of their employment by organizations of the United Nations common system.” Additionally, Reuters reported that Taliban fighters have taken over some UN compounds in Afghanistan, “searching and ransacking offices and in one case demanding the guards provide meals for a commander and his men. . . . ” Dujarric neither confirmed nor denied the report but said that what’s “critical is that the authorities in charge in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan realize that they have the responsibility to protect U.N. premises and for the safety of U.N. staff.”
Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesperson, addressed overall safety concerns in the country in an Aug. 17 press conference held in Kabul, saying of “United Nations agencies and international NGOs and organizations” that “no one will take any steps against them, they won’t be harmed. . . .”
In Geneva, the Human Rights Council held an emergency session on Aug. 24 on Afghanistan, producing a resolution that the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission called a “travesty.” The European Union and others lamented the Council’s failure to create an independent monitoring mechanism on the country’s situation.
In New York City, top diplomats for Ireland and Mexico at the UN, who are also elected members of the Security Council, wrote to Ambassador T.S. Tirumurti of India, the president of the Council this month, “to place the utmost priority on protecting and vindicating the rights of Afghan women and girls in all decisions and actions on Afghanistan’s future.” The Council has not met on Afghanistan since Aug. 16, but Guterres is scheduled to meet with the permanent members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the US, on Aug. 29. He called it a “normal” meeting on the work of the UN.
The UN has repeatedly said since the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan nearly two weeks ago that it was remaining in the country. “The Secretary-General noted that the UN is committed to supporting Afghans, and that we continue to have staff and offices in areas that have come under Taliban control,” Dujarric told reporters on Aug. 16. “He said that the UN presence will adapt to the security situation, but, above all, we will stay and deliver in support of the Afghan people in their hour of need.”
Liam McDowall, the chief of communications for Unama, wrote in an Aug. 20 email to PassBlue: “The UN family in Afghanistan is operating in an extremely volatile setting and is acutely aware of the great stress and genuine fears of some staff, particularly those of national colleagues.
“We are determined to do everything possible to support all support staff. Significant work has been undertaken and continues apace — in Afghanistan, at UN headquarters in New York and elsewhere — specifically to further strengthen the security of national staff. We are taking every measure and exploring every possible avenue.”
Echoing Dujarric’s remarks, McDowall noted: “There is a clear difference between working for the UN compared to working for a specific state. States may issue visas and grant entry to non-nationals. The UN is clearly unable to do so and, instead, we approach member states and request them to issue visas and/or provide temporary residency permits for our colleagues.”
While the world was shocked by how quickly the Taliban won power and uncertainty prevails about how the militia will govern and particularly treat women and girls, especially when the US and other Western nations are gone, UN staff interviewed for this article said that the possibility of the Taliban gaining control had been raised by Unama employees months ago and that requests were made to develop plans for evacuation of all national staff.
Unama was established in 2002, a year after 9/11, by Security Council Resolution 1401 to support the implementation of the Bonn Agreement, which provided a legal framework for Afghanistan until the country adopted a new constitution. The agreement called for the UN “to assist in the formation of a national army and for the UN Representative to lend his Good Offices to facilitate post agreement implementation.” Afghanistan adopted its constitution in 2005 and Unama has retained a sizeable presence in the country since then. The mission’s mandate has been altered to “reflect the needs of the country,” its website said, and the mandate was most recently extended for a year on Sept. 15, 2020, by Security Council Resolution 2543.
Guterres may ask the Council to bolster Unama’s role when the mandate renewal is triggered next month, given the shift in power in Afghanistan. One unifying aspect for the Council on the country may be a focus on counterterrorism there, one diplomat told PassBlue.
“I asked the Security Council, in my meeting and then in the closed session, that it’s very important for the international community to be united, for all members of the Security Council, but in general, for the international community to be united, to use the only leverage that exists, which is the interest of the Taliban for legitimacy, for recognition,” Guterres told the media on Aug. 19.
Deborah Lyons, a former diplomat from Canada, was appointed head of Unama in March 2020; the deputy special envoy is Mette Knudsen, a Dane.
Unama’s headquarters in Kabul maintain a field presence across Afghanistan’s provinces and liaison offices in neighboring Pakistan and Iran — at least until recently. Some staff members told PassBlue that numerous national staff have been relocated from provincial offices to Kabul since Aug. 15. The UN compound is being guarded by the Taliban, the UN said, as their role as de facto rulers of the country.
Lack of Planning?
While Unama has relocated national staff from certain provinces to Kabul, its policy framework does not allow for evacuation of national staff, although individual appeals are possible. One national staff member who spoke to PassBlue soon after the Taliban arrived in Kabul said that Afghans asked Unama management at a “town hall” (staff meeting) at the time to press the UN for dispensation to accommodate the dire situation.
“Everyone requested from leadership to change this policy and make an evacuation plan,” he said. “Everybody is scared. The situation is unclear. Some people have worked a long time with Unama. I know their security is danger. Their lives are danger.”
Two national staff members who also spoke to PassBlue said they were aware that Unama management had agreed to raise the possibility of including UN staff with US, British and Canadian evacuation plans for their own national employees, citizens and operational partners. The mission sent notes verbales — formal communiqués — to 28 countries asking them to offer entrance to Unama national staff, according to one source.
UN personnel who were interviewed for this article said that Afghan staff members think that more could be done to protect them. “We are told by the senior leadership that they are trying to do their best to keep the national staff safe, but I think they have failed,” said a long-term national staff member on Aug. 17. “Even yesterday, we had a town hall. . . . One staff member had asked in the chat box if the UN can evacuate us to Canada.”
The Unama employee said that management had informed staff that the UN was talking with the Taliban to ensure Unama staff would not be harmed. “But who can guarantee that they will not? We cannot trust them,” the person said. Her practice for years has been to hide evidence of her UN affiliation on her way to work, to lower her potential risks with the Taliban should they notice her. Now the threat has risen exponentially, she said. “If they come to know that I have been working with international men and women, they will say I’m doing jihad with them. My ID would be their proof.”
National staff interviewed for this article said that this approach to dealing with the Taliban is useless. “The education of the Taliban is very low,” one person said. “They just know this person worked with the UN — with foreigners.” The person added that simply having an advanced education, as most Unama staff do, makes them a target for the Taliban. Another national staff member repeated this fear, saying: “Educated Afghans work with Unama. We are targeted because we are UN, also because we are educated.”
Calling on the Security Council
“The UN have to do more than have a meeting in the Security Council,” said one international employee, referring to an emergency Council session on Aug. 16, after which it released a statement. “They need to draft a plan for its staff — specific and written. And they need to disseminate this information to the staff. These nationals are United Nations staff members. They need to know their rights. They need to know if the UN is protecting them. They don’t know.”
Before the Taliban’s ultimate advance into Kabul on Aug. 15, Estonia and Norway, circulated a draft statement among fellow Council members that was strongly worded against the Islamist group. It said, for one, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not recognized at the United Nations and that it does not and will not support the establishment of any government in Afghanistan imposed through military force or restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
But the final statement only said this of the Taliban: “Neither the Taliban nor any other Afghan group or individual should support terrorists operating on the territory of any other country.”
Estonia’s foreign minister, Eva-Maria Liimets, said that it was a positive step for the Council to release the statement nevertheless. “I think that it is very important to have these discussions with the Taliban and with all the parties of Afghanistan,” she said, adding that it reflected a “united approach.”
The statement, however, did not convey the reality in Afghanistan. “There are reports that the Taliban are searching house by house,” a source said. “Even our homes are not safe.” She broke down sobbing when she said that her 10-year-old niece has begun the unusual practice of wearing a headscarf in her own home. “She is afraid the Taliban will see her in her home. We are so scared of even opening the door.”
Stéphanie Fillion and Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this article. It has been updated continuously since its original publication on Aug. 20.