The US Biden Administration delayed the planned 1st May 2021 withdrawal date, NATO included, to 11th September 2021, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the USA. The programme began on 1st May and is underway. After the US announcement, the Taliban did not attend the peace talks planned for mid-April in Turkey, now scheduled for after Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. The US Embassy in Kabul has advised US Nationals to leave the country. The US Department of Defense has told its sponsored programmes to submit a thirty-day drawdown plan, and it looks likely that all will have moved their international staff out of country by 31st May.

Resulting situation

Violence has increased across the country, especially against Afghan Government employees and Security Forces. Targeted killings, IEDs and kidnaps have surged, and there have been instances of beheadings. The 8th May attack on the Syed Al-Shahda school for girls in Kabul was disclaimed by the Taliban, and ISIS may have been the perpetrator. No US or NATO forces, or INGOs, have been subject to this surge of attacks yet; one rationale is that the Taliban want to do enough to make themselves felt, but not so much as to encourage another delay in the withdrawal.

Pilgrims was monitoring the situation in the weeks up to 1st May and predicted a serious deterioration in security and the consequent adverse impact on clients. Pilgrims had begun, and continues, regular discussions with all its clients, planning the options for shelter-in-place, relocation, evacuation, and potential recovery or return.

Although the departure of US Department of Defense programmes is underway, and the USAID Partner Liaison Security Office has echoed the advice from the US Embassy, some USAID programmes are looking over the horizon, leaving their international security teams in place to be ready to respond to risk-based opportunities to re-group in some form. Others are staying in place and closely monitoring the situation with their security providers’ help. Pilgrims remains fully in place to assess and manage the security, and design and adjust contingency plans, in line with developments.

Pilgrims ‘advice to clients in these situations is to base decisions on clinical assessment of risk, so as to be neither too hasty nor too tardy. Agreeing well-thought-through political and operational triggers for dynamic decision-making, and consequent options for action, based on each organization’s own business imperatives and acceptance thresholds for risk, is always a good approach. A single trigger occurring might not necessarily result in a specific action, but it will result in a decision, even if the decision is to do nothing further. Several triggers are more likely to result in action. At a high and generic level, triggers might be:

  • Surges of increased violence continue, but with low direct impact on the client’s operations or safety of international and local staff
  • Impactful political agreements or decisions, including those involving the Taliban, or uncertainty caused by an unexpected the lack of them
  • Attacks on international targets
  • Further increases in attacks on Afghan Government targets, especially if they result in clients to operate
  • Attacks on international security forces or companies
  • Attacks on INGO staff or compounds
  • Attacks on hospitality and life support venues

Some clients have expressed concerns about imprecise messaging coming from their Governments, and the speed at which they are being asked to leave; some feel they are in the country for good reasons and are looking for ways to finish the work they started.

COVID-19 and UK travel postscript

One current COVID-19 related problem is the increasing difficulty UK nationals face working in Afghanistan, especially after Dubai was added to UK’s ‘red list’. Turkey then became the main transit route, but was itself added to the list on 12th May. Pilgrims has adjusted its UK staff rotations so as to minimise the effect of hotel quarantine in UK, but in some cases, including supporting Department of Defense demobilisation, it has not been possible, and so rotations stop, and the staff stay in situ. This was the situation during much of the 2020 lockdowns, and security staff accept it, but it remains undesirable. The UK quarantine exemptions apply to those travelling on a weekly basis, and not to others, so we are looking to persuade HMG to review its exemption policy to include those on longer rotations.

Phil Drinkwater,

Global Operations Lead,

Pilgrims Risk Management Group Ltd.