An Afghan mother passes her baby to US troops at Kabul Airport

One Bhutanese still in Kabul shares his account

Gurung (name changed) is the last Bhutanese left in Kabul after six of his Bhutanese colleagues also working for different United Nations agencies made it out safely.

The paper is not revealing the identity and exact job of Gurung or even his former job in Bhutan for his own protection. Gurung is part of the critical staff of one of the UN offices there and will only be able to leave in the first week of September 2021.

Gurung has been in Afghanistan for seven years and he was witness to first the Taliban moving into Kandahar where he originally worked and recently into Kabul where he had shifted base.

He said the Taliban in Kandahar stormed into the UN compound and took away the guns of the UN security staff there and also some phones, laptops and other valuables. They made a complaint to the local Taliban commander but could not get back most of the things.

He said he then moved to Kabul where he is relatively safe in a large UN compound guarded by around 150 Gurkhas put in place by a private security company hired by the UN.

Outside the UN gates the Taliban stand guard with their weapons as they have guaranteed the security of the UN compound.

Gurung is one of the few international staff left in a UN which itself is one of the last international offices left in Kabul with most embassies and other agencies having been evacuated out.

He said he feels safe in the compound but the only worry is that given the international isolation of the Taliban they could pressure the UN offices to get them funds or use them for leverage in the worse case scenario.

Gurung feels grateful that the government under the instructions of His Majesty The King has been in constant touch with him and the others, enquiring about their status and safety and ready to offer any help. He said in addition to direct calls from Thimphu he is also in touch with the Bhutanese Embassies in Delhi and New York.

“So far we have been assured by the Taliban that they will not put us in harm’s way,” he said.

However, the situation is chaotic as a recent UN convoy to evacuate UN staff had to come back to the compound as it could not make it to the airport.

Gurung said that he did not hear gunshots much but the two main sounds that dominated was firstly of several planes doing evacuations and secondly the Americans blowing up their remaining munitions and equipment near the airport.

Gurung said it all started when the American soldiers pulled out and particularly when they vacated their largest military airbase in Afghanistan at Bagram.

He said that Kandahar was one of the first provincial capitals to fall without much fighting as deals had been made and government forces either switched sides or fled.

He said the Taliban moved rapidly with similar arrangements in other places and finally the same happened in Kabul.

Gurung, however, pointed out that since the Taliban have mostly been fighting they lack the administrative acumen to run a large city like Kabul and are having a tough time. He said there is a total break down in administration.

Gurung also observed that the new Taliban government is short of cash as most of the Afghan government funds were held abroad and especially USD 9 bn in USA.

He said the Afghani, which is the local currency, has fallen in value making things more difficult for locals.

One tactic of the Taliban was to take over all the international border crossings first before advancing on Kabul and this has lead to shortages of items in the local shops. Also, not all shops are open and around half are still closed.

Gurung said that if the situation does not improve in the coming days then there very well could be food shortages and a humanitarian crisis. He said that Kabul already is seeing a lot of people coming in from the provinces and they are sleeping in the streets at night, but this will be impossible in winter as the Kabul winter is much colder than even Thimphu.

Gurung said that the Taliban had been completely defeated in 2001 but the USA did not pay much attention and so they regrouped and came back. He said in 2011-12 there were 140,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan led by the USA.

He said they built the Afghan Army, provided equipment, airbases, paid salaries and gave air cover and when they left they handed over 11 airbases to the Afghan army along with military aircraft, armored vehicles, Humvees, weapons and more.

Gurung said during his time there the big change first started when President Trump wanted to to pull out of Afghanistan and so the USA asked Pakistan to release one of the main leaders of the Taliban- Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (now the Afghan President) and started negotiations to pull out.

He said that most of the US soldiers withdrew during Trump’s time reducing the number of US soldiers to only around 2,500.

Gurung said that an error that President Biden made was to announce that the US would withdraw all troops by the end of August 2021 after which the Taliban started its offensive.

He gave the example of the Bagram airbase which the Americans vacated without even telling their Afghan counterparts.

Gurung said there is a great sense of betrayal by local Afghans who worked for the USA, as their lives are now in danger. He said that the rush to get out is so strong that a C-130 military aircraft that can only seat 150 people carried around 600 Afghan civilians.

Gurung still finds it difficult to believe how a 60,000 strong Taliban defeated the Afghan armed forces comprising of around 300,000 personnel.

He said the Americans are busy evacuating around 9,000 Americans who are all in Kabul and some translators with around 30 to 40 flights a day. But Gurung said that while the Americans are safe for now most of the translators are stuck not only in Kabul but all across the country.

Gurung said that a major reason the former Afghan government lost support of the people was for the massive corruption as a lot of money was pilfered and that impacted development. He said the corruption was almost chaotic there was a lot of resentment among the young people including college graduates and as a result some of them joined the Taliban.

However, there was economic development compared to the past and things came up.

One major change that Gurung observed was in the improved condition of the women under the former government and many girls started going to school, women went to college and Afghan women occupied positions in the government and headed NGOs and businesses.

However, he said all of that is now uncertain under the Taliban and there is now a lot of fear among the local women.

The local UN office is trying to see how best it can support the people as there is likely to be a humanitarian catastrophe. He said as soon as the Taliban government is formed then there can be discussions on how to help the people, but as of now nothing is clear.

Gurung said there have been some small protests against the Taliban by local Afghans.

There were a total of seven Bhutanese working in various UN agencies in Afghanistan of which five were women and two were men. Six of them made it out with only Gurung staying back due to the nature of his job.

Gurung said his annual leave is coming up in the first week of September and he has requested for a month’s leave at the time to go and join his wife and children who are in New York and in touch with the Bhutanese Embassy there.

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