A sustained attack by militants on Afghanistan’s parliament and various targets in the diplomatic zone on 15 April temporarily shut down the capital, Kabul, to all movement by UN personnel and raised alarm among aid workers that the Taliban are now able to penetrate even the most secure parts of the city.
It is the latest in a long list of incidents - though none as spectacular - that have forced aid workers to hole up behind concrete walls and inside bomb shelters.
But even on a “regular day” in Kabul, the costs of security restrictions on aid workers are very high. Here's a taste of life in the "Kabul bubble", as one aid worker put it.
UN aid agencies can open offices only within a so-called “ring of steel” or “green zone” that is no more than 7sqkm - a heavily guarded district where many embassies and international organizations have set up shop. It was one of the areas targeted in yesterday’s attacks.
UN staff can live in one of only a handful of places in Kabul: heavily-guarded guesthouses run by various UN agencies; the Park Palace Hotel; or the UN Office Complex in Afghanistan (UNOCA).
The latter is some 20 minutes outside of town, boxed away by 3-4m high walls, topped with barbed wire. Its entrance is framed by a zigzagging set of concrete barriers, with two checkpoints, where security guards check for IDs and for bombs, using dogs and mirrors poked under the chassis of vehicles.
Inside that compound, aid workers eat, sleep and work during missions that can last years. Many complain about unhealthy lifestyles. On Sunday afternoons, for example, there is no cafeteria open in the compound, and many aid workers resort to crackers or cans of tuna for dinner. They have limited facilities for cooking in their pre-fab containers, some as small as 14 square metres - consisting of a single bed, bathroom and desk with two hot burners.
Many go days without ever leaving the compound (for that they must wait for a driver to be available), simply walking from the container where they sleep to the container where they work.
Guests must submit their name, nationality, passport ID and vehicle plate number 12 hours before visiting the compound.
Travel within Kabul is largely limited to government offices, a handful of specific restaurants and hotels or compounds of other aid agencies. Security officers recommend that travel outside the “steel ring” be for limited periods only.
Outside of the perimeter of Kabul city, UN aid workers must travel in two-car convoys of blast-resistant 4x4s with teams of Afghan police as armed escorts in front and behind.
|You have a bunch of people who have barely any access to the field. Most of them are very young, inexperienced in the country. They don’t know what they are talking about|
Aid workers regularly complain that they cannot meet local people, cannot go to the market, and cannot feel a part of the community in which they work. The psychological challenges of the limitations in movement are compounded by the burden on relationships that Afghanistan can impose. It’s not a family duty station, so staff must resign themselves to Skype conversations on bad internet connections with family and friends, and visits during R&R.
The hardships do not compare with what Afghan civilians face, caught in the middle of this conflict.
The cost of mandatory R&R is one of many financial burdens for UN agencies when working in these environments. Add to the list the rising costs of armoured 4x4s, the private security firms that provide protection inside the compounds, the security guards who perform checks at the gate, the helmets and body armour for staff… The list goes on and on. And with questionable success.
“The way the Taliban attack now, millions [of dollars] will not work,” one aid worker said.
The larger cost, though, is in the impact on aid delivery.
Here’s how Laurent Saillard, a veteran of Afghanistan and head of the European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm, ECHO, in the country, described the situation:
“You have a bunch of people who have barely any access to the field. Most of them are very young, inexperienced in the country. They don’t know what they are talking about. They have never visited the country; never moved around; never physically monitored a project; never spent time with the Afghan population. The only Afghans they know are their cook, their cleaner or their driver. They don’t know anything about this country. They arrive at the airport, step into an armoured vehicle, into their compound, and that’s it…
“They are living in the Kabul bubble.”