UN’s Afghan staff fear there is no escape from the Taliban

In a consolatory message to Afghan workers, UN chief Antonio Guterres did not promise a wholesale evacuation

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres offered consolation to more than 3,000 staff in Afghanistan on Tuesday but stopped short of promising a large-scale evacuation of Afghans despite rising fears of reprisals under the country’s new Taliban overlords.

In a video message to the UN's Afghanistan team, Mr Guterres said he was alarmed by reports of “harassment and intimidation” against workers since the Taliban takeover and that he may relocate more of them outside the country.

He spoke against a backdrop of escalating fears of reprisals against foreigners and Afghans linked to the US and international organisations under Taliban rule as well as chaotic evacuation efforts at the main airport in Kabul.

“I share your concern, your anxiety and your pain,” the UN secretary general said in a video post.

“We are doing everything in our power … and will continue to do so to ensure your safety and well-being, and to find external solutions where they are needed.”

Since Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15, the UN has relocated about 200 of its 300 international staffers — many will continue working from Almaty, Kazakhstan — but insists it will continue delivering aid for needy Afghans.

That leaves some 3,000 Afghans who work for the UN and its agencies, many of whom worry that the Taliban and its hardline allies will come after them simply because of their foreign affiliation — especially the women.

Afghan UN workers have written to foreign governments describing their fears and pleading for help. Others launched an online petition calling for the “evacuation or relocation” of imperilled employees who had “worked day-in, day-out under the UN flag” for years.

Though they are less obvious targets of Taliban revenge than the Afghan commandos and translators who fought alongside US troops during a two-decade military operation, Afghans employed by the UN are also understood to be in danger.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said UN researchers on opium production, human rights breaches and other “sensitive issues” may be vulnerable to reprisals following the Taliban’s unexpectedly fast takeover of the country.

An internal UN report seen by Reuters said 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.

Mr Dujarric spoke of boosting security for Afghan colleagues, but also noted that the UN could not issue visas and appealed for help from UN members, who can issue paperwork needed for international travel.

Fears were heightened at a press conference given by Zabiullah Mujahid in Kabul on Tuesday in which the Taliban spokesman said foreign nationals were allowed to exit Afghanistan, but that Afghans were barred from leaving the country.

“The Afghans leaving, we are not going to allow that, and we are not even happy about it,” said Mr Mujahid.

Afghanistan’s doctors, academics and other specialists “should not go to other countries, to those western countries” and should stay in Afghanistan and use their expertise to better the nation.

The hardline group also sought to assure the thousands of Afghans crowding Kabul airport in the hope of boarding flights to escape reprisals that they had nothing to fear and should go home.

A senior US official said that President Joe Biden had decided to stick with his August 31 deadline to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, despite top American allies calling for an extension to fly more people out.

Western troops have been working frantically to pull more foreigners and Afghans out of the country, with Mr Biden facing growing pressure from allies to negotiate more time for the airlift.

Governments that have relocated about 60,000 people these past 10 days are rushing to meet the August 31 deadline agreed to with the Taliban for the withdrawal of foreign forces.

The hurried evacuation operation kicked off after the Taliban swept into Kabul on August 15 and the US-backed government collapsed as the US and its Nato allies withdrew after a 20-year presence.

The hardliners were ousted from power by US-led forces in the weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US by Al Qaeda militants whose leaders had found safe haven in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Updated: August 25th 2021, 4:28 PM