Terrified local UN staff left to the Taliban’s mercy

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter

Is the UN local staff in Kabul being forgotten and put at risk? Some former UN senior colleagues of the approximately 3000 local staffers fear so, and have written a letter to Antonio Guterres asking him to act before the August 31 deadline for evacuation closes. In an internal video message addressed Monday (August 23) to the employees of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the S-G himself admits that the Taliban have already committed “harassment and intimidation.”

Deborah Lyons, the Canadian head of UNAMA, has been evacuated to Almaty. She has delegated all “urgent and time-sensitive decisions requiring immediate decisions in Kabul” to a deputy, according to internal UN documents disclosed in British press reports.

There is no plan, however, to evacuate local staff, a decision that prompted their former colleagues to urge that “they should not be asked to sacrifice their lives and safety in order to accomplish their mission.” The former UN senior employees’ letter states:

“Due to their service with the United Nations and with programmes funded by western governments including the United States, European Union, Australia, Netherlands, Japan and the Swiss government, they are known in their communities, including by insurgents, for this work. We are already receiving disturbing reports of the Taliban raiding homes, beating people for affiliation with international organizations and requesting meetings for ‘letters of forgiveness’.” The letter, first disclosed by Politico, concludes: “It would be much safer for them to continue their work from outside the country.”

UNICEF and WHO have admitted that their ability to respond to humanitarian needs is declining (see Jamil Chade's story below ), yet the two UN agencies have requested that local staff keep coming to work.

Most of UNAMA’s 720-strong foreign national staff have been evacuated, whilst legitimately terrified Afghan employees, for their part, have been asked to remain “calm and positive,” and to cooperate with the Taliban when they conduct door-to-door searches, in guidance sent Tuesday (August 24) by the UN’s security adviser to Afghanistan.

“Stay calm. Your calm and positive interaction with armed elements or de facto authorities, should remain clear, honest and confident. […] Do not be concerned that you are associated with the UN,” the note says—words that will hardly appease local staff’s legitimate fears as the situation in Kabul continues to deteriorate.

The Taliban “target all those who were active in any sphere/process of state-nation building, and we were the ones who were involved in all these in one way or another,” wrote an UNAMA employee in an email to a former senior UN political adviser who was stationed in Afghanistan. “Even this phone in which I am writing this message to you is enough […] evidence for my killing [because] I have international colleagues, their contacts, names etc,” the employee adds.

Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter announced last week that they had moved to secure the accounts of Afghans citizens to protect them from retaliation. But while such measures are welcome, they might not be of much help, as the Taliban already have access to a vast trove of digital data.