When Afghans came to work, their European colleagues had fled

Europe Letter: The Taliban have secured leverage over many thousands of lives

British and US armed forces collaborate at Kabul airport to keep the airport secure and  allow evacuations to proceed safely.  Photograph:  British ministry of defence/AFP via Getty Images

British and US armed forces collaborate at Kabul airport to keep the airport secure and allow evacuations to proceed safely. Photograph: British ministry of defence/AFP via Getty Images

 

Visas were offered, flights arranged and a reception system established to receive Afghans who worked for France, and their families, who the foreign ministry believed “could be threatened” by the Taliban.

This was not this week or this month, but in May, when the French foreign ministry assessed that country could fall to the Taliban as the United States withdrew.

About 600 Afghans were to be evacuated, Le Monde’s Kabul correspondent Jacques Follorou reported, with “drivers, cooks, employees of cultural and cooperation agencies, as well as cleaning and maintenance staff” all eligible.

The plan was that by July, all local staff would be gone with only a skeleton staff of French nationals remaining. The final evacuation flight for French nationals in Afghanistan was announced for July 17th. Paris urged its citizens to be on board and warned that, after this date, their safe departure could not be guaranteed.

At the time, the news of the French evacuation caused a small stir, as it was indicative of a deeply pessimistic outlook on the prospects for the US withdrawal.

It now looks prescient, and stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by others. Dutch staff abruptly left their Kabul embassy this month without a word to the Afghans who worked alongside them, foreign affairs minister Sigrid Kaag acknowledged. Afghan staff reportedly turned up to work to find the place abandoned.

‘Harassment and intimidation’

A similar situation in the Swedish embassy was reported by national daily Expressen, which carried a plea for help from a group of local employees who said the Taliban were searching for them house-to-house.

The European Union has said that most of the local staff of its delegations have now been evacuated. But the United Nations is taking a different approach.

In a message to its roughly 3,000 Afghan staff, secretary general António Guterres said he was “distressed” by reports that some had been subject to “harassment and intimidation”.

But the UN had been present in Afghanistan “for decades, through thick and thin”, he added. “We remain, and will continue to remain.”

The rationale is that humanitarian services are needed more than ever due to the threat of food and water shortages in the country and the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled their homes within the country due to the conflict, many of whom are in increasingly desperate circumstances.

Some lament the colossal brain drain that the evacuations represent, and question how liberal advances such an independent media and structures for women’s advancement can survive if those who built them have left.

But the UN’s aim of continuing to deliver services “is being done at the expense of the safety and security of Afghan nationals who are in the employ of the United Nations”, a group of former employees wrote to Guterres in an appeal for their evacuation reported by Politico. The UN’s roughly 720 foreign staff, notably, have been offered help to leave.

‘Humanitarian corridors’

Afghans have good reason to want to get out in the first rush of evacuations. The EU as a whole has not yet set a figure for how many refugees it will accept. The fate of many will rest on how broadly or narrowly countries define who they are obliged to resettle.

When interior ministers meet to discuss the issue, they will be chaired by Slovenia, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency. Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša, a Donald Trump fan, has been busy tweeting that there should be no “humanitarian corridors” with Afghanistan and that the “strategic mistake” of accepting Syrians in 2015 must not be repeated.

The United States’s snub of European appeals to extend the presence of its troops at Kabul airport to allow evacuations to continue past a deadline of August 31st was taken as confirmation in Brussels that Washington cannot be relied on to support allies’ interests – despite the change in administration.

Governments are now frank that some people will be left behind: talk among officials has turned to how to persuade the Taliban to allow people to continue to leave after August 31st.

There are other demands too, particularly to maintain the rights of women and girls, and to not allow the country to become a harbour for heroin trafficking and terrorism.

A phrase heard often now is “we have leverage”. This means money. The West holds the key to billions of dollars of Afghan central bank reserves, International Monetary Fund resources, and development funds, all held in the international banking system and much of it within the US.

The Taliban, with the fate of so many Afghan lives left in its hands, has ample leverage too.

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