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Published: September 29, 2021

The Future of Operational Security in Afghanistan

By: Daniel Paul

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What could the changes in Afghanistan mean for NGOs’ operational security in the country? Organisations delivering aid in Afghanistan, whether through local nationals or expatriates, must reassess their Security Risk Management (SRM) approach to meet the ever-changing risks and their Duty of Care obligations. In this blog, SRM consultant Daniel Paul looks at how organisations can ensure system-based methods complement community-based approaches to protect their staff in Afghanistan.

The current Taliban does not resemble the Taliban pre-2001, having a different structure, size, and more disjointed belief system. Those who have worked in areas under Taliban control post-invasion should make sure they do not rely on assumptions about how the Taliban used to operate. The ‘new’ Taliban has grown significantly and appears to be less homogeneous. A United States Institute for Peace report discussed possible trajectories for the Taliban, including markers that might lead to their fragmentation as a group. Rapid gain in territory notwithstanding, the relegation of Mullah Baradar to deputy prime minister could create rifts in the Taliban structure. The group might also struggle to balance the different factions and their ideological intensities. There is already a disparity between the moderate messaging from Taliban leadership in Qatar (such as in this BBC interview), the hardliner interim government leadership, and early reports of killings of Hazara men, journalists, and Afghan army and police officers.

The changes in the Afghanistan context requires organisations to adapt their SRM approach to give greater flexibility in how field staff can respond. Incorporating systems-based and community-based methods together will be vital to operating effectively. Systems-based thinking is top-down and views security as an organisational, functional entity, using effective threat modelling to create standardised responses (such as Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), training, and guidelines). Community-based methods, which are bottom-up, see security as something flexible which is achieved at the field level – between field staff, the community, and their surroundings. The diagram below depicts some key differences between the two approaches to security:

NGOs must seek a balance between ensuring security at the community level and empowering national staff while ensuring that effective systems, guided by security experts, are in place to protect staff.

The following areas will be important in ensuring security in Afghanistan and require systems-based and community-based methods to work together:

  1. Alternatives to simulation-based security training for national staff

As Afghan national staff are unlikely to be able to attend simulation-based security courses soon to improve staff security awareness, meaningful alternatives should be explored. Online security training has been used to fill a gap during COVID-19 and can be utilised in the first instance, though its use should only be temporary. Training that does not adequately prepare staff for likely security threats not only fails to meet Duty of Care obligations but puts staff at risk of failing to act when faced with danger.

Classroom training can increase an individual’s security awareness, but this training does not only have to take the form of watching videos or clicking through slides. Country Directors or Security Focal Points can run scenario-based discussions covering likely threats, with staff talking through the steps they would take to respond (an example approach provided below). Such training is not only cost-effective (or free) at increasing security awareness, but when encouraged by leadership, creates a healthy security culture.

Security training here is not just systems-based, which would focus on ensuring staff know and can follow the SOPs and incident response plans. This form of training is also community-based, improving the situational awareness of those at the ground level and their ability to take action.

  1. Regular security briefings

Security briefings have become more commonplace with NGOs, especially for staff arriving in-country. An effective method of structuring such security briefings can be found in this GISF guide (page 41). However, security briefings in Afghanistan take a new context – the Taliban today is different from the Taliban pre-2001 or post-invasion. Possible group fragmentation might mean that NGOs are treated differently depending on the area they are working in or even depending on power shifts within regions.

Country Directors and SFPs should consider how rapidly the situation is changing, and plan briefings accordingly, shifting from daily to weekly to possibly monthly (the latter when the situation is more stable). Briefings could include:

  • Power shifts
  • Perception of the organisation from local Taliban leadership
  • Interactions with members of the Taliban and how to respond
  • Likely checkpoints and how to act
  • Response from Taliban to female colleagues
  • Likelihood of Taliban raids or crackdowns on liberties
  • Curfews and other lockdowns
  • Threat from criminal groups[1]
  • Likelihood of terror attacks (from terror groups in the country, such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS-KP).

Such briefings require both support from organisational security experts, but also input from national staff and their contact networks, as well as collaboration across agencies, utilising community-based networks. The contents of the briefings should relate to the likely threats staff will face and how these have and will change, improving the ability of those at the community level to respond.

  1. Information security and social media security

There will be a need to have better control of data in Afghanistan, especially that which can link individuals to projects or activities the Taliban deem counter to their aims. This is critically important for national staff. A BBC article recently referred to the Taliban carrying out a door-to-door manhunt, searching for those they deem as collaborators. The loss of biometric data collected by the US military has exposed the vulnerability when robust data management plans are not in place, as this MIT Technology Review article explains.

A good starting point is having all staff limit what their social media profiles reveal. Media articles are reporting that Afghans are attempting to erase their online presence already. Alongside this, having guidelines on how staff can use social media safely, and what staff should and should not share is helpful, especially when working on contentious projects. For organisations working on projects they believe the Taliban would be against, Human Rights First have put together a useful guide on scrubbing your online presence, with Facebook providing a quick tool for those looking to limit profiles privacy. This relates not only to what is online but also the information stored on devices, including pictures taken on phones.

  1. Evacuation planning

The sudden withdrawal of the US resulted in one of the largest airlift evacuation operations in recent history. However, it highlighted the difficulty of operating in an environment with limited evacuation options, with most evacuations going through Hamid Karzai International Airport, which is now under Taliban control.

Chapter 10 from Security To Go is a valuable tool when planning evacuations. As seen in the recent evacuations, there is sometimes an unavoidable difference in how expatriate staff are treated compared to nationals. These difficult conversations need to be had with staff ahead of time, and no promises should be made where it is unlikely national staff will be evacuated.

Key evacuation considerations include:

  • Trigger points on when to evacuate
  • Clear communication on who will be evacuated (and who will not)
  • Identifying the legal requirements necessary to evacuate different staff (for instance, requirements for evacuating Afghan staff and their families)
  • Identifying other countries Afghan staff can be evacuated to
  • Identifying evacuation options (ports of exit)[2]
  • How will equipment be handled
  • How will confidential information be disposed of
  • How will national staff be paid if they cannot be evacuated and operations are temporary halted?

Here, systems-based approaches are combined with community-based approaches. Effective evacuation plans need to have input from national staff when being developed. National staff are the ones implementing them after all, either through local contacts, strong acceptance with local communities or neighbouring governments, or dialogue with Taliban commanders. A collective effort, collaboration and coordination with other agencies is also vitally important when planning and implementing evacuation plans.

Though there has been a deterioration in the security situation, and a lack of stability raises concerns, organisations are advised not to react by moving to complete systems-based security methods, where control is removed from local teams and controlled more tightly from the top. Though security managers have a decisive role to play, it must be local staff who take ownership of this and develop the appropriate skills at the community level to adapt and overcome the risks as they arise.

About the Author

Daniel Paul is a security risk management consultant whose work primarily focuses on security and crisis management. He is an Associate Trainer for RedR and regularly runs their Personal Security for Humanitarians and Security Management for Humanitarian courses, as well as working on notable projects such as Security Incident Information Management and the ALERT project. Dan also lectures at Coventry University on the Disaster Management courses in security management and disaster preparedness, and holds a PhD in Security Risk Management.

Daniel Paul: danielcpaul@outlook.com


[1] Though the Taliban historically had a tight control of law and order, with often strict and swift punishments, there has been a marked growth in organised crime groups, especially those engaged in human and drug smuggling. It is unclear whether the Taliban will clamp down on these groups after years of mutual support.

[2] When identifying evacuation options, the PACE methodology can help: Primary, Alternative, Contingency, Emergency



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