UN Afghan Staff Are Taliban Targets – But They Will Not Be Evacuated

A UN memo addressed to staff on the ground urged them to "stay calm".
A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the August 26 twin suicide bombs, which killed scores of people including 13 US troops, at Kabul airport on August 27, 2021
A Taliban fighter stands guard at the site of the August 26 twin suicide bombs, which killed scores of people including 13 US troops, at Kabul airport on August 27, 2021
WAKIL KOHSAR via Getty Images

Local United Nations staff will not be evacuated from Afghanistan despite already facing reprisals from the Taliban.

While most foreign employees have been flown out of the war torn country by the UN, many local workers will have no option to escape before the cut-off point for evacuations on August 31.

Including all contractors and their families, this mean up to 30,000 people linked to the UN will now be stuck in Afghanistan – compared to the 720 foreign staff who have already been evacuated.

What does the UN say about its local workers?

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres sent a video message to those on the ground on Monday, thanking the personnel and claiming they “represent the best” of the UN.

He added: “You have our full support and solidarity.”

Secretary general of the United Nations, the Portuguese António Guterres
Secretary general of the United Nations, the Portuguese António Guterres
picture alliance via Getty Images

Guterres also claimed that many of the local personnel did not want to leave Afghanistan and instead wanted to help with the emerging humanitarian crisis, contrary to other reports.

But, the secretary general did acknowledge the “harassment and intimidation” experienced by the local staff from the Taliban.

He added: “We are doing everything we can in power...to ensure your safety and wellbeing.”

The Taliban threats are already escalating

Although the Taliban want all foreign troops out of the country by the end of the month, the militants are reportedly allowing NGOs and the UN’s refugee agency – UNHCR – to continue operating past August 31.

But, according to POLITICO, some UN staff have already endured intense Taliban interrogations, or even had their cars bombed.

UN staff also fear that there is no plan of action to delete the full digital footprint of all their work linking them to western allies – documents which could also help the Taliban target specific Nato figures.

The militants are said to be making lists of those who helped the western efforts against the Taliban for the last two decades as well.

Even former UN workers are worried.

POLITICO obtained a letter addressed to Guterres on Tuesday from a group of former UN colleagues based in Afghanistan pleading for him to evacuate local staff.

It said the workers “should not be asked to sacrifice their lives and safety” to fulfil their UN duties.

Taliban fights have also raided several UN compounds since announcing victory in Afghanistan.

A former UN staffer told BuzzFeed News: “They are very, very visible in communities. The Taliban know exactly who these people are.”

UN-orientated news site PassBlue also reported that the Afghan nationals working for the international organisation felt “alone and petrified”.

What’s the UN’s advice to scared personnel?

The UN’s principal security adviser for Afghanistan sent a memo to staff on Tuesday urging workers to cooperate with the Taliban’s house-to-house searches.

Women and children are made to crouch and wait outside the Taliban controlled check point near the airport's Abbey Gate, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021
Women and children are made to crouch and wait outside the Taliban controlled check point near the airport's Abbey Gate, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2021
Marcus Yam via Getty Images

It read: “Do not be concerned that you are associated with the UN.”

It continued: “Stay calm. Your calm and positive interaction with armed elements or de facto authorities should remain clear, honest and confident.”

The memo did urge female staff to reduce their visibility, and avoid answering the door to the Taliban fighters.

Later advice contradicted this message for workers to “stay calm”.

Some 770 Afghans working for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan were told to “hibernate” because their safety cannot be guaranteed.

The empty but secure UN compounds which housed foreign staff are reportedly not allowing local staff in either, meaning the local workers do not have a safe sanctuary.

An employee told Global Translations: “Very, very few families have been let in. If they have, it’s been only for very high ranking locals.”

Four Afghan nationals told BuzzFeed News they had been forced to seek refuge with relatives, while other workers claimed the UN said they would only be able to get their employees out – not their families.

Why can’t the Afghan staff get visas?

Even those with letters verifying their jobs with the UN did not receive accompanying visas.

A spokesperson for the secretary general said this is because Afghanistan is “not a nation that issues visas”.

He blamed “administrative hurdles that have to be negotiated and discussed”.

The UN also failed to move two helicopters from Kabul airport to its own helipad, meaning no evacuations could take place inside the UN’s safe compound. The helicopters were then looted and are now unusable.

US soldiers stand inside the airport wall as hundreds of people gather near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021
US soldiers stand inside the airport wall as hundreds of people gather near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021
via Associated Press

Criticism against the UN

Hitting out at the organisation, a former international staffer said: “They’ve had months to prepare for this.”

An Afghan staff member also told BuzzFeed News that complaints and pleas for help had fallen on deaf ears.

They said: “They’re just playing a game with us. Each week there’s a meeting where they say they’re ‘trying our best’.

“What kind of trying is this? If small embassies can evacuate staff, why can’t the UN?”

Arora Akanksha, a UN auditor looking to be the next secretary general, lashed out at the organisation too.

She said: “We are supposed to protect human rights of all, and now we are leaving our own to fend for themselves. Shame on the UN and its leadership.

“This whole ‘stay and deliver’ message that the UN is promoting, we should ask ourselves who is staying?”