Exclusive

U.N. Return to Afghanistan: ‘This Is Completely Insane’

A month ago, the United Nations was pulling its staff out of Afghanistan. Now, it’s headed back in to avert a major humanitarian crisis.

Afghan security officers stand in front of a U.N. vehicle.
Afghan security officers stand in front of a U.N. vehicle where three foreign election workers with the joint U.N. mission were kidnapped near Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 28, 2004. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

As thousands of people continue their exodus from Afghanistan fearing reprisals from a Taliban notorious for extreme human rights abuses, the United Nations is preparing to send its staff back into the field to manage what is expected to be a major humanitarian relief effort.

The decision to tough it out in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has raised alarm among some U.N. international—and particularly Afghan—staff, many of whom fear for their lives and have been struggling to secure safe passage out of the country. “Make no mistake—this is completely insane,” said one U.N. official briefed on the plan.

The move comes as the United Nations faces increasing pressure from key powers—including the United States, China, Russia, and Pakistan, which has already established an air bridge between Islamabad and Kabul—to resume humanitarian operations in Afghanistan. It reflects mounting concern from governments and the United Nations that a country already struggling to meet the basic needs of its people could spiral into a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe. It also comes as the United Nations’ humanitarian branch is laying the groundwork for a possible high-level mission to Afghanistan.

As thousands of people continue their exodus from Afghanistan fearing reprisals from a Taliban notorious for extreme human rights abuses, the United Nations is preparing to send its staff back into the field to manage what is expected to be a major humanitarian relief effort.

The decision to tough it out in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan has raised alarm among some U.N. international—and particularly Afghan—staff, many of whom fear for their lives and have been struggling to secure safe passage out of the country. “Make no mistake—this is completely insane,” said one U.N. official briefed on the plan.

The move comes as the United Nations faces increasing pressure from key powers—including the United States, China, Russia, and Pakistan, which has already established an air bridge between Islamabad and Kabul—to resume humanitarian operations in Afghanistan. It reflects mounting concern from governments and the United Nations that a country already struggling to meet the basic needs of its people could spiral into a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe. It also comes as the United Nations’ humanitarian branch is laying the groundwork for a possible high-level mission to Afghanistan.

“Many, many, Afghan lives are at risk,” wrote Liam McDowall, the spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. “The U.N. family will do everything it can to save lives while at the same time protecting the safety of its personnel.”

“In the last few months Afghanistan experienced a mass upheaval as the conflict escalated with hundreds of civilians killed and injured,” McDowall added. “The U.N. safeguarded all its staff throughout this turbulent period and we are determined to keep doing so while looking to ramp up assistance to millions of the most vulnerable Afghans who so desperately need the world’s help right now.

A series of internal U.N. documents obtained by Foreign Policy detail just how tenuous the security situation is for U.N. officials operating in a new, Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, with memos warning officials not to make any “sudden movements” if Taliban militants raid their homes and instructing them on how to destroy sensitive U.N. documents in a rush.

The U.N. directives sending staff back into harm’s way mirror internal debates other human rights and aid organizations are having as they assess their future footprint in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan: Risk their own staff’s lives by staying in the country or risk exacerbating a dire humanitarian crisis by pulling out.

Some independent human rights groups and relief organizations say the United Nations faces a difficult dilemma—but one which is not entirely new. Although the United Nations has an obligation to protect its staff, it also needs to be on the ground to the extent that it can provide life-saving relief and report publicly on the human rights situation.

“We want the U.N. to have as substantial a presence on the ground as possible,” said Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director for Human Rights Watch. “The U.N. needs to be the eyes and ears on the ground with regard to human rights, and particularly with respect to women and children, given the Taliban’s abysmal track record.”

On Thursday, the top U.N. official on the ground in Afghanistan asked headquarters to authorize the return of essential international and national staff to several cities evacuated in recent weeks, noting that prospects for armed clashes between the Taliban and remnants of the Afghan National Security Forces have diminished, according to a memo obtained by Foreign Policy. The official, Ramiz Alakbarov, the U.N. deputy special representative in Afghanistan, wrote a memo to U.N. security chief Gilles Michaud saying, “present and projected security risks levels are … ‘HIGH’ for all these areas.”

“While the situation in the country remains fluid and governance and security structures [are] still getting in place, the triggers associated with armed clashes between Taliban and Afghan Security forces are no more valid,” Alakbarov wrote. “I would appreciate your approval for [the] return of the U.N. International and National Personnel for PC1 and 2 activities in [the cities of Bamyan, Herat, Kandahar, Maymana, and Nili, Afghanistan],” he added. “I recommend that once the logistical-security arrangements are in place, the U.N. International and National Personnel with dependents may return to their respective Duty Stations in these Regions.”

The United Nations uses a so-called “program criticality” assessment system to determine four levels of acceptable risk for U.N. staffers. Program Criticality 1 (PC1) refers to activities in “very high present risk environments” that are essential for saving large numbers of lives and have a significant impact on the mortality rates of the population. PC2 refers to activities in high-risk areas, but which are marginally less essential.

The request came days after U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres wrote a memo to Afghan staff, highlighting the need to keep working in Afghanistan despite the risks. “We face a terrible dilemma,” Guterres wrote in an Aug. 31 memo obtained by Foreign Policy. “We must make sure that the United Nations, which has been in Afghanistan since 1948, can continue its vital work in support of the Afghan people.”

“At the same time,” Guterres added, “I am acutely aware of my responsibility to do everything to protect your safety and security, as United Nations personnel.” The move marks a stark reversal from the U.N. posture only a month ago, when U.N. officials were urging staffers to remain at home, saying it was working with governments to secure safe passage out of the country.

In parallel, humanitarian organizations that work with the United Nations and other international donors are debating whether to keep their staff in Afghanistan amid fear and uncertainty about Taliban reprisals.

“In terms of the security situation, it was already extremely tenuous before the collapse of the government,” said Julien Schopp, vice president of humanitarian policy and practice at InterAction, an alliance of nongovernmental organizations that support humanitarian work. “Afghanistan in the past 10 years has been one of the top three most dangerous environments in the world for aid workers.”

As the Taliban began their march across the country, the United Nations began pulling staff out of cities and towns under attack. On June 19, the United Nations ordered the full evacuation of staff from the city of Maymana in northern Afghanistan. Over the following two months, all but the most essential staff fled the southern and western cities of Kandahar and Herat for the relative safety of Kabul. Last month, the United Nations relocated all of its national and international staff from Bamyan and Nili in Afghanistan’s central highlands.

“For all staff in Kabul and across the country, we still advise you to take appropriate security measures, such as remaining at home, and refraining from movements outside the home that are not absolutely necessary,” Deborah Lyons, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan, wrote in a memo to staff. “We have sent out advice on how to behave if people come to search your premises. I continue to urge you to stay calm and let some time pass in order for the security situation to hopefully stabilize.”

One internal security memo that illustrated the fears of U.N. officials about the rapid Taliban takeover included detailed instructions on how to destroy sensitive U.N. documents. “If you have personal documents that you do not wish to be seized please put printed simple paper documents into a basket with soap, water and whatever strong cleaning solution you have,” the memo instructed. “Let it soak, then pour it out into the open sewer. … If you have a deep well, you can also drop things in there in a rush, or down the elevator shaft.”

Another internal security advisory offered step-by-step instructions on how to interact with armed Taliban fighters engaging in “house-to-house” searches for senior officials. “Do not resist or obstruct armed elements or de facto authorities,” the advisory counseled. “There is a high risk that armed individuals may enter your residence without your permission. … Be cooperative, regardless of your belief of their wrongdoing. Politely inquire their reason for being there so you can support them. Try to stand at a safe distance, remain calm, but confident, and avoid making any sudden movements.”

Prior to the collapse of the Afghan government, the United Nations had around 300 international staff and more than 3,000 national staff working in the country, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told Foreign Policy. The spokesperson said “the vast majority of U.N. Afghanistan staff remain in place” but declined to give precise numbers for security reasons.

U.N. national staff and their dependents—including spouses, children, and other family members—total some 16,000 people.

Even before the collapse of the Afghan government and desperate U.S.-led evacuation, top U.N. officials were warning that the country was teetering on the brink of a massive humanitarian crisis. Lyons warned in early August that Afghanistan risked “descending into a situation of catastrophe so serious that it would have few, if any, parallels this century.”

Some 18 million Afghans—about half the population—rely on humanitarian assistance. Around one-third of the population is food insecure at any given time, and malnourishment is predicted to affect more than half of children under age 5 within the next year, according to U.N. data.

These numbers could sharply increase under Taliban rule as it remains unclear whether the militant group can restore even basic services across the country as they try to form a new government. So far, the provisional Taliban rulers also have no guarantees the international community will turn back on the spigot of billions of dollars worth of aid that propped up the country for two decades.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Thursday said the United States will “remain unwavering in our commitment to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan” but will review all other forms of bilateral assistance as it waits to see whether the Taliban make good on their promises to form an inclusive government that respects human rights.

Guterres this week announced he was issuing a “flash appeal” for funding and humanitarian aid from international donors. “I urge all member states to dig deep for the people of Afghanistan in their darkest hour of need,” he said. “I urge them to provide timely, flexible, and comprehensive funding. I urge them to help ensure humanitarian workers have the funding, access, and legal safeguards they need to stay and deliver.”

So far, such funding appeals have fallen short. This week, the OCHA assessed the United Nations and its partners need $1.3 billion to address Afghanistan’s humanitarian needs, but so far, it has received only 39 percent of that funding.

Some experts predict this funding gap could widen. “There is a fear that as Western countries leave Afghanistan, that their funding commitment to supporting the Afghan people through humanitarian programs is going to slowly disappear,” Schopp said. “That would be one major way the situation could get way worse.”

“I’m in favour” of a wider U.N. return to Afghanistan, said Andrew Gilmour, a former U.N. official who served in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, when Afghanistan’s mujahideen fighters stormed the capital and forced the country’s then-president, Mohammed Najibullah, into hiding in a U.N. compound. Najibullah was later executed by the Taliban.

“Without humanitarian aid, we’re looking at a catastrophe of unbelievable proportions,” said Gilmour. “For now, the Taliban have every interest to work with the international community, thereby enabling the U.N. to do its vital work.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Anna Weber is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @annasweber

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.