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Fear of violence sends foreigners packing ahead of Afghanistan’s presidential election

Troops with the International Security Assistance Force secure the scene of a suicide bombing in Kabul that killed at least two foreign contractors working for the NATO-led coalition. The blast on Feb. 10, 2014, scattered pieces of vehicles for hundreds of yards.

KABUL — As Afghanistan prepares for a pivotal election, many of the foreigners who played a major role in helping Afghans try to build a functioning state are leaving — at least temporarily — driven out by escalating violence such as last week’s Taliban attack on a luxury hotel that claimed 13 lives.

The exodus, expected to increase after the Serena hotel attack, highlights the challenges facing Afghanistan as international combat troops prepare to leave by December. The fact that foreign NGOs do not feel safe enough to ride out the election shows the fragile nature of security in Afghanistan despite a huge U.S. and NATO investment in lives and national treasure since the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power following the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Even if the Taliban and other militant groups can’t completely disrupt the voting, security concerns could keep many Afghans and international monitors away from the polls, especially in the Pashtun heartland of the south where the militant movement draws much of its strength.

The absence of enough international and Afghan monitors raises the possibility of widespread electoral fraud that tarnished the presidential election of 2009. A repeat of such massive fraud could raise questions whether foreign governments will be willing to support Afghanistan with billions in aid which the country will still need after the foreign combat troops have left.

“I think that what you’ll see is many people will leave 48-72 hours before the election,” said Christian, a risk-management consultant with the U.K.-based private security firm Safer Edge, which provides security services for NGOs, including in Afghanistan.

“Most security organizations are recommending they leave for the sheer sake of exposure,” said Christian, who spoke on condition that his surname not be used for his own security. “Insurgents have always been attacking the international community, but now they are becoming absolutely deliberate and indiscriminate. Where before they may have refrained from certain targets, now it is open season, I do think they are going to pour it on.”

The attack on Kabul’s Serena Hotel on Thursday was noteworthy because it targeted foreigners and Afghan VIPs and because it occurred in one of the few places in the country that was considered relatively secure.

Despite facing some of the strictest security measures of any private facility in Afghanistan, four gunmen managed on Thursday night to penetrate the hotel by smuggling small pistols past guards and X-ray machines.

Moving among diners who had gathered for a meal, the attackers shot-point-blank at both Afghan and foreign patrons. When it was over, the four gunmen were dead along with nine civilians.

In the wake of the attack, officials from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, who had been in the country to provide expertise and consulting on the election and who were based at the Serena, have been relocated to Turkey while the organization reassess security, OSCE spokesman Thomas Rymer said. He said no final decision had been made on whether the officials would return to Afghanistan before the elections.

The National Democratic Institute said it has pulled out its election monitoring staff, which had been staying at the Serena, after one of the organization’s observers, Luis Maria Duarte, was killed in Thursday’s attack. “We are assessing our election monitoring activities, including deployment of additional staff,” NDI spokeswoman Kathy Gest said.

The United Nations is also moving some international workers out, according to an Afghan employee of the UN, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media. He told Stars and Stripes that as an Afghan he isn’t worried about being left, as he considered international workers more significant targets.

Publicly, however, the UN is sidestepping questions about the withdrawal of personnel. UN officials have declined to describe any measures they are taking during the election for fear it could compromise security. Spokesman Ari Gaitanis said, “the UN has been here for decades” and that they “remain undeterred in our commitment to the people of Afghanistan.”

Some media are finding April’s historic vote too dangerous to report on. After the Serena attack, several international journalists told Stripes they were canceling plans to travel to Kabul to cover the elections.

The Taliban have vowed to use every means necessary to disrupt the April 5 elections, in which Afghans are to choose new provincial councils as well as a new president. The poll would mark the first democratic transfer of power between two presidents since the international coalition toppled the Taliban regime in 2001.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, in a statement Sunday emailed to media, said that the victims at the Serena were valid targets who “were killed for their crimes against the Afghan people.” He denied, however, that the group was responsible for the deaths during the attack of Afghan journalist Sardar Ahmad and members of his family.

Even before the Serena bloodbath sent shock waves through Afghanistan’s civil society, many international aid organizations, consulting companies and nongovernmental organizations had been preparing to withdraw at least some of their staff from the country.

Employees of several private consulting companies that work for the UN and other organizations privately told Stripes that they had been instructed to leave Afghanistan during the elections. In some cases, companies were scheduling conferences or training in Europe and elsewhere as a way to move their staffs to safer areas.

A report in January highlighted the dangers faced by aid workers. A coalition of international and Afghan aid groups, including Oxfam and the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and Development, said that “Afghanistan continues to rank among the most violent contexts for aid operations,” with at least 29 deaths, 71 injuries and 111 abductions among aid workers in 2013.

The Serena, while always a high-profile target, had long been considered a fallback position in Kabul. Unlike Baghdad with its “Green Zone,” Kabul has never had a centralized fortified area to which international diplomats, aid workers and journalists could retreat, so the hotel served as a refuge instead.

After a deadly attack on their compound last year, for example, members of the International Organization of Migration, a UN-affiliated body, moved to the hotel.

In an incident even more brazen than the one at the Serena, Taliban militants killed 21 people in an attack on a popular Lebanese restaurant in Kabul, and members of an offshoot insurgent group claimed responsibility for gunning down a Swedish journalist on March 11.

But Afghans, who live everyday with insecurity, continue to bear the brunt of attacks in the war, which has now lasted more than a decade. The day of the Serena attack, 11 Afghans died in a Taliban attack on a police station in eastern Afghanistan. Two days earlier, 17 civilians were killed in a suicide bombing in a northern city.

Even if many foreign NGO workers and others withdraw, the Afghans who make up the majority of the staffs at many organizations will still face risks, said Amaury Cooper, deputy director for risk management and global security at International Relief & Development, a Virginia-based humanitarian aid organization.

“Eighty percent of casualties among NGOs happen to local staff,” said Cooper, who also serves as the secretary for the International NGO Safety & Security Association.

Christian said he had been recommending to clients who have to stay in Afghanistan during the election to make sure they have determined escape routes and safe havens wherever they are operating.

“An even more sensational attack may still be looming,” he said. “The Taliban are making good on their threats. When they say they are going to be attacking expats, NGOs, and others, that’s what they’re doing.”

Smith.josh@stripes.com
Twitter: @joshjonsmith

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