‘Everyone is getting out – and fast’, the man tells me over a crackling line. He is tired, clearly subdued. A UN staff member, he was in Afghanistan until very recently and is still trying to process what happened. ‘We knew this was going to happen,’ he continues, ‘but everyone was caught by surprise at the speed of the Taliban advance.’
UN staff are now being evacuated to Almaty in Kazakhstan, from where they will make their way to their respective countries. But what about the local Afghans that worked with them? ‘Our Afghan colleagues were given letters of support for country visas in the region: Iran, Pakistan, and India. Some were able to leave before, mostly to Turkey, and we helped evacuate hundreds of colleagues to Kabul, but the UN cannot evacuate everyone out of the country’. He pauses, and with great sadness says, ‘so essentially they are on their own’.
‘We’re already dealing with the Talban,’ he continues. ‘Recently, a delegation of theirs came to the gate of one of our compounds: they were very respectful: we still have staff in Kandahar that we haven’t been able to evacuate, and they promised that when the time came, they would escort them to the airport. At another location when thieves tried to break into one of our compounds, they repelled them.’
And what happens to Afghanistan now? ‘Now we go back to Talban rule,’ he replies. ‘What do you think will happen?’ I fire back. ‘Well,’ he concludes – again with sadness. ‘I heard yesterday that their spokesperson said that ‘the Taliban of the 1990s is not the Taliban of today.’ I guess we’ll see.’
When the end of empire dawned for Britain and it scuttled out of Palestine, Cyprus, and India, some described it – uncharitably but accurately – as a policy of ‘divide and flee.’