UN Evacuates Some Staff From Embattled Kandahar: What About Those Left Behind?

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) announced today that it has temporarily moved some of its international staff in Kandahar to Kabul and instructed its national staff in Kandahar to stay at home. The announcement came after a spate of suicide bombings, attacks on supply convoys, and the fatal shooting of a young employee of a US-based development firm. A major NATO offensive to drive the Taliban from Kandahar is expected early this summer, and friends who recently visited the city have described a place blanketed by dread.

UNAMA’s decision in Kandahar got me thinking about evacuations, what they say about organizations, and how they are conducted.

Years ago, I interned for a multilateral organization that was not the UN and prided itself on a ‘leave no staff behind’ policy. If a threat materialized and it was serious enough to prompt even a temporary evacuation, national and international staff alike were moved to a safe location. This happened once while I was at the organization in question. Rioting broke out near a field office and all staff from that particular field office, including national staff who were actually from the town where the rioting was happening, were whisked away and placed in a hotel several hundred miles away until the danger passed. To me, that seemed the obvious ethical thing to do.  

But the country where I was an intern, though prone to occasional outbreaks of localized violence, was dysfunctionally at peace overall. Afghanistan is a very different ball game. There is an escalating armed conflict here, with at least five distinct belligerent groups (for the uninitiated: two different Taliban factions, the Taliban-sympathetic militant group Hezb-i-Islami, the NATO –led international force and the Afghan government) fighting in different areas, and so the evacuation calculus is more complicated.

Afghanistan is also a far more closed, fearful place. Many national staff lie about who they work for, often telling close friends and family they work for Afghan companies, or, if they have traveled to the cities to work for foreign organizations, that they are students at the local university. They lie to protect themselves, but also to protect their loved ones. The fewer people know the truth, the better. Many other Afghans working for internationals have two jobs –the politically dangerous job they receive most of their income for, and the uncontroversial side job they use as cover. Evacuating national staff who are employing either of these strategies could blow their cover. That said, instructing them to just stay home isn’t subtle either.

The awful reality is, national staff are far more vulnerable than their international colleagues, especially in deteriorating places like Kandahar.  They must live amongst their prospective killers, without the physical protections afforded to expatriates. I believe that, if a situation is dangerous enough for internationals to be evacuated, national staff should at least be given the option of leaving as well, even if that could mean them resettling elsewhere permanently. I hope the UN is giving its national staff in Afghanistan this choice. Does anyone know if it is?