Evacuating from Afghanistan

Like a host of other people in different parts of the world, I’ve been working day and night over the past few weeks to assist organisations to plan and execute the evacuation of at-risk Afghan individuals and groups from Afghanistan.

The constraints?

  1. Don’t engage in human trafficking (moving people illegally across borders)

Relatively straightforward at first glance. As you’d expect, the reality on the ground is far more nuanced and complex.

The characteristics of the evacuation problem in Afghanistan right now are markedly different from those that defined the period of the US and NATO withdrawal, which concluded on 31 August. The situation has transitioned from what appeared to be a chaotic and free-wheeling military-led evacuation to what is now more of a challenging travel logistics problem (albeit under exceptional circumstances).

Many of the challenges currently being faced trying to move people out of Afghanistan would apply in almost any other country. Problems related to travelling without passports or crossing borders without transit visas aren’t unique to Afghanistan.

The purpose of this article is to share some of my observations and lessons learned from my experiences over the past few weeks. Hopefully, these insights will be useful to others facing similar challenges.

This isn’t a “how to” guide for evacuations from Afghanistan, because I’m not about to compromise past or future plans. Rather, it’s part a “what not to do” guide, and part a “be sure to consider these things” guide.

Note that the focus here is on evacuating Afghan citizens, not foreigners. My work has focused on at-risk groups, which have included families with children. These factors have forced a conservative approach. In addition, many individuals do not have passports.

This is a long article. The good news is that if you’re not actually conducting evacuations from Afghanistan, you can give it a miss.

1. Understand the risks

There are a range of people wanting to leave Afghanistan. At one end of the spectrum are people who are being actively targeted by the Taliban and, if found, will be killed. Their families may also be brutalised or killed. At the other end of the spectrum, there are people who are understandably fearful of Taliban rule and see this moment as their best opportunity to leave the country and start a new life somewhere else. Then, there is a vast number of people whose situations and motivations lie somewhere between these two extremes.

The nature of the threats facing specific individuals and groups should drive your approach to evacuation. Any evacuation of people facing extreme risks must rely on clandestine approaches. They will need safe houses, specialised support networks, and secure communications. Flying out of Kabul airport on a scheduled flight probably isn’t going to be an option for these individuals. The longer these groups stay in the country, the greater the risk to their safety and security. Therefore, there’s an imperative to move them quickly and quietly to a third country, even if there are some risks involved with the operation.

At the other end of the risk spectrum, those people who are not facing specific threats and want to resettle should not be in a hurry to evacuate. While waiting for third-country visas, they can probably remain in their homes and will be able to move around relatively freely. These groups should not be incorporated into high-risk plans. In some cases, these groups may simply be able to wait for a scheduled flight out of the country.

The key point here is that most people seeking to leave the country don’t need sophisticated support strategies and operational plans. Adopting clandestine approaches for routine evacuations may end up confusing people or actually placing them at more risk. Plus, clandestine networks are fragile and don’t cope well with large volumes of people.

Tailor the evacuation approach to the risk profile of the evacuee group. Also, if you can avoid doing so, don’t mix people of different risk profiles in the same group.

2. Ensure people are safe in their current location

As a principle, you’ll want to avoid moving people around unless absolutely necessary. All movement comes with some risk. Accordingly, ensure the evacuee group is going to be safe in their current location.

If you assess that the group is not going to be safe in their current location, you’ll need to arrange alternative options. You may need to move people to a different house or apartment, or even move them to a different city.

I’ve been seeing a lot of references to using “safe houses”. Safe houses probably aren’t necessary for most people, based on their risk profile. Not wanting to be pedantic, but a random apartment is not, by definition, a safe house. It’s just a different place to stay. What makes a safe house actually safe are the procedures involved with its use and the support network maintaining the facility and supporting its occupants. Telling local people you’re moving them to a safe house — when you’re just moving them into an apartment — is a bit misleading.

In addition to having a safe place to stay, also manage movement by minimising any non-essential outside activity. The concern here is less about the activities of armed groups and more about the risk of being involved in a random accident that could result in injury or hospitalisation. Such an accident could delay an evacuation or limit evacuation options.

At the same time, don’t lock the evacuee group away. Instead, encourage the group to spend some time outside each day so they remain attuned to the local environment. If the group remains locked inside, and only has access to social media and messages, their level of anxiety will increase. Furthermore, they’ll be less able to identify changes in their local environment which could indicate an increase in risk, making them more vulnerable.

3. Identify local resources

Many of the localised aspects of the evacuation can be effectively planned and managed by the evacuees themselves. The people on the ground will know the best way to move between locations, and you should trust their experience and judgement. Of course, you can add a procedural overlay to this movement to help to manage risk and ensure an effective response to contingencies.

Some of the larger “collectives” have focused on expensive mass transport options to move people around. Such options are not only extremely expensive, but they also offer no measurable operational benefits. In fact, I’d propose that the risk of travelling in large and high-profile convoys is higher than taking local transport. With larger groups, there’s also the possibility that people of different risk profiles will move together in the same convoy. Mixing people of different risk profiles can either help to conceal small numbers of high-risk individuals, or can endanger individuals with low to medium risk profiles. Careful planning is therefore necessary when moving larger groups.

In most cases, the better transport options are standard public buses and taxis. Buses and taxis provide an inexpensive and discreet solution. As an example, a seat on a bus from Mazar-i-Sharif to Kabul may only cost as little as AFN 600, or USD 7.50. Groups chartering buses for the same journey would have to pay considerably more.

In addition to transport, the evacuee group will also need access to a convenient print shop, so they can print visas and air tickets. All travel documents must be in hard copy. Backup copies are essential. There are some obvious operational security issues with printing travel documents in the current context, so it’s good to establish sound procedures around local printing. If the group is travelling overland, they should leave the printing until they are close to the border.

As you’d expect, cash is also critical. In addition to local subsistence, once the evacuation is underway, evacuee groups will need to pay for local transport, accommodation, meals and bribes. There are a range of cash transfer options available. Western Union is one option, but there are other options that are easier and more reliable in the current situation.

The evacuee group should carefully tailor the amount of cash they carry during the actual evacuation. While we haven’t experienced situations where the Taliban (positioned at various checkpoints along main routes) have demanded money, border officials will certainly want their share. Apparently it’s impossible for border officials to resist the opportunity to fleece refugees of their last few dollars, when all they have on them are literally the clothes on their backs and a few possessions in a daypack.

Finally, ensure you’re able to top up mobile phone plans. If needed, you can top up phone plans remotely using Ding. Communications are essential for effective coordination, particularly when moving. Mobile reception can be patchy in places, particularly along the roads between the major centres. Use passive location tracking to monitor movement and to avoid continual messaging (people also need to take the opportunity to rest in the bus).

4. Don’t move unless you have a solid plan

There were major movements of people in the early stages (28 August – 2 September), at substantial cost and with minimal tangible benefits. Many of the groups that rushed to move are still stuck in place, and have been poorly positioned to take advantage of some subsequent evacuation opportunities.

These movements have positioned people away from the most viable evacuation routes, and have ended up placing strain on local resources. The likely result is that these groups will face additional attention and scrutiny. Indeed, some of the groups that moved during these early stages are now debating the need to retrace their steps.

Depending on where evacuee groups are located, there may be a tendency to want to relocate to take advantage of evacuation opportunities. The geography of Afghanistan defines what’s possible. Kabul provides access to an international airport and the Torkham border crossing into Pakistan. Kandahar provides access to a domestic airport and the Spin Boldak border crossing into Pakistan. Mazar-i-Sharif provides access to a domestic airport and border crossings into Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Moving between these key centres (and others) completely changes the evacuation options available to the group. Movement also takes time, increases anxiety, and exposes people to unnecessary risks.

The best approach is to stay in location until all the pieces of a viable plan are in place, and that plan is ready to execute. I’ll explain what these pieces are below.

At the same time, consider contingencies. What would have to happen to force you to move the evacuee group from their current location to a different location? Once you’ve determined these event triggers, monitor the environment and prepare a plan to move if those events materialise.

5. Build an end-to-end evacuation plan

Aside from the need to deal with Taliban checkpoints and corrupt border officials, in many ways, leaving Afghanistan is a normal travel problem.

The first step is to have a destination that is willing to accept you. For Afghan refugees, this step is an enormous challenge. Many people wanting to leave Afghanistan haven’t been able to get a third-country to sponsor their resettlement. Without this third-country support, the only options available to these groups are to stay in place, or to illegally cross a border and hope to be accepted into a refugee camp. The latter is not guaranteed.

(For the sake of simplicity, and to reflect the current situation, we’re assuming here that the third-country is not a neighbouring country.)

Let’s say the evacuee group has been successful in securing the support of a third country. The group has been provided official documentation from that country allowing the group to travel there (often without passports). While this is a huge breakthrough, it’s not enough to get out of the country .

To cross a border for the purposes of getting to an international airport to travel to the third-country, the evacuee group will need a transit visa to enter the neighbouring country. Many of Afghanistan’s neighbours have been obstinately refusing to provide such visas.

A quick message to countries who are willing to except Afghan refugees: Thank you, but your support must also extend to lobbying neighbouring countries for transit visas. If not, it will be extremely difficult for people to leave the country.

Right now, the reality on the ground in Afghanistan is that there are large groups of people who have been accepted into refugee programmes in different countries, but these people are unable to leave the country for the reasons described above.

Why not just fly out, you ask? There are several reasons why flying is not a good option. While charter flights are available, they are prohibitively expensive and will require diplomatic overflight and landing permits. Basically, a government must be willing to sponsor the flight. Additionally, the way the terms of payment are structured, combined with the uncertainties that exist on the ground, make it more likely that you’ll lose your money than actually get people on a flight. This situation may change, but it’s the reality right now. (If you’re interested, chartering an aircraft into Afghanistan costs between US $600,000 – US $1,200,000. The full amount must paid up front before the company is willing to file for permits — which, again, they need a government to sponsor.)

The other factor to consider is that the idea of going to an airport is terrifying for most people belonging to at-risk groups. As Sirajuddin Haqqani’s ministry of internal affairs organises itself and starts to organise the information sources to which it now has access, attempting to go through an airport could be a very risky undertaking for some.

Plus, many people don’t have passports, making air travel difficult/impossible without special arrangements in place.

As you might expect, crossing land borders also isn’t a picnic. The surrounding countries have restricted access to Afghan refugees. Right now, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan aren’t issuing transit visas. Pakistan has been issuing some transit visas, but the process isn’t straightforward. Access to Pakistan border crossings isn’t guaranteed. The border crossings are often overcrowded and the Taliban have closed the borders to pedestrian traffic on several occassions. Pakistan border officials can also be unpredictable in their willingness to let people move through, and will require financial incentive. (Note that I haven’t been monitoring border crossings into Iran or Turkmenistan.)

While it’s certainly possible for an evacuee group to illegally cross into neighbouring countries, it’s an ill-advised option for most categories of people. Once the group illegally enters a country, they won’t be able to fly out to a third-country for resettlement (they won’t have a valid visa). If caught, the group may be placed into a refugee camp or deported back to Afghanistan. Of course, there are other techniques, but they get complicated and the risks go up.

To summarise this key section, only consider moving forward with an evacuation once the evacuee group has a third-country visa and a transit visa to travel through an adjoining country. Of course, you can build operational plans and identify the resources you’ll need to execute the next steps, but there’s no value in repositioning people or booking resources until these two enabling travel documents are in order.

Expanding on third country support

Finding a country willing to accept Afghan refugees isn’t easy. If you’re trying to support the process of resettlement for a group of Afghan refugees, you’ll need to activate all high level contacts available to you. Lobby far and wide. Some organisations are lobbying up to 10 different countries known to be accepting Afghan refugees in the hope that one may accept. The process can take weeks or months.

There’s also a dangerous Catch 22 situation at play here. You could publicise the plight of the at-risk group in the hope you get media attention and support. But such public attention could have unpredictable impacts on the group’s safety while they are still inside Afghanistan.

A key point to reinforce is that a third country visa won’t provide access into a neighbouring country. To access Pakistan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan – so you can move the evacuee group to an international airport – you’ll need transit visas. For this reason, you may want to focus attention on governments that have an embassy in Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

Not having passports poses additional challenges

A significant number of people wanting to leave Afghanistan don’t have passports. This factor presents a host of different problems. Even if you’ve been able to secure third-country support, pay careful attention to air travel and transits and make sure that these options will be accessible to people without passports.

There are options available to procure passports, but these options take time and are expensive.

Evacuation into neighbouring countries is hard

While I’ve kept an eye on air evacuation options, my primary focus has been on overland evacuation options into neighbouring countries. To say the process hasn’t been easy is a gross understatement. While you will hear anecdotes of people successfully crossing borders, when you dig into those anecdotes through primary sources, there are very few repeatable patterns. Most operations rely on a dangerous combination of good luck and good timing (along with some solid planning).

Most successful border crossings are actually exceptions. If you try to chase after these exceptions without fully understanding the factors that made them successful, you may place people at risk.

6. Follow the rules

Afghanistan – and its neighbours – are not one big playground where you can ignore international laws and conventions. As some people learnt the hard way in Mazar-i-Sharif, aircraft need landing permits to land at airports (and diplomatic overflight clearance and landing permits if they want to land in another country with a plane load of Afghan refugees). As described above, crossing a land border or a neighbouring country requires a visa of some kind. The same rules that applied in these countries a month ago still apply now. In fact, these are the same rules that apply in any other country.

Those people who have decided to ignore these rules have made it difficult for everyone else. The reality is that the various “rogue operations” have been completely counterproductive. Most have failed, and in doing so have placed evacuees at risk. Even worse, these failed attempts have resulted in procedural controls being tightened. As a result, many evacuee groups have been delayed while others have had viable evacuation options closed off for them.

I’m as adventurous as the next person, but many of these plans have been very poorly considered and have incorporated some very flawed assumptions. Sure, you could probably slip across the border into Tajikistan. There are certainly options available at the Uzbekistan and Pakistan borders to pay your way through. People smugglers are also in operation. While such options may work for individuals or pairs — if your group is large and consists of women, children, elderly, or people with health or mobility concerns — these options are ill advised. If your evacuee group has been lucky enough to have secured resettlement in a third country, you probably don’t want to have them trafficked to that country.

The best course of action is to follow the normal rules of travel and ensure that all necessary documentation is in order. Start with the third-country visa or documentation, then get the right transit visas, and then launch your operation.

My advice is to think less like a special operations planner and more like someone planning a group holiday. While there are certainly unique risks to consider in the context of Afghanistan, what will make your evacuation plan viable is thorough planning and some knowledge of how basic travel logistics works. The most important skill right now is not working out how you can get an aircraft into a remote runway, but just having a basic idea of how transit visas and air travel work.

7. Validating planning assumptions

Be careful of assumptions entering your planning process. In fact, to have a viable plan, you’ll have to validate every assumption in that plan, from end to end.

Some groups have overlooked viable options because they’ve made an assumption that a certain aspect of that option isn’t possible. Other groups have wasted time and other resources on options that haven’t been viable (when viable options exist).

During your planning, list out the dependencies that are essential for a specific evacuation option to be viable. From there, go through a process of validating each of these dependencies. Some, like whether you have a third-country visa, are things you would know. Others, like route conditions or border procedures, are things you’ll need to find out.

If you have people on the ground, task them to go out and gather specific pieces of information. Providing small but meaningful tasks to evacuee groups also helps keep them busy and makes them feel more involved with the process. At least in my case, the information I’ve been able to learn from people on the ground has been invaluable in validating assumptions and shaping plans.

Not sure if a border crossing is open? Send someone down to check. Not sure if the Uzbekistan consulate is issuing transit visas? Try calling, or send someone down to the consulate to take a look. Not sure if the Taliban will allow people to go to the border? Send someone down the road to speak to them. Rapidly chasing down and closing off assumptions will enable you to quickly get to workable evacuation option.

8. Carefully evaluate prior art

There have been a multitude of stories floating around about people crossing borders or flying out on charter flights. I have no doubt that quite a few people have leapt into action after hearing these stories, thinking they have discovered a viable option to leave the country.

If you had investigated these stories, you would have discovered that there are only a very small number of successful cases, where groups have been able to get around the normal rules and find an expedient way out of the country. Most of these cases were the exception rather than the rule.

Where you can, find primary sources that were involved in the operation and ask them to explain their processes. What documents were required? Who did they need to coordinate with to facilitate movement? You need to determine whether their operation is replicable, or whether it involved a unique combination of good contacts, good timing and good luck.

In my own work, I’ve been able to chase down and speak with people that were directly involved with some of the early air charters and border crossings to get first-hand information on the processes and challenges involved. These discussions yielded invaluable information to support my planning, and have helped me avoid several unforced errors. The fact is that many of these operations relied on specific dependencies that are no longer available. Therefore, the option is no longer replicable.

If you’re conducting ongoing evacuations, debrief groups after each stage of the process. Find out exactly how they negotiated their way through Taliban checkpoints or border crossings. Did the border officers ask for money? How much? Was it possible to negotiate? Could one person pay for the group, or was each person required to pay themselves? What would have happened if you didn’t pay? The answers to these questions (and others) are the keys to solving the challenges that may impact subsequent evacuations.

9. Be careful on the roads

Most of the risk involved with an evacuation from Afghanistan is during the period of time when people are on the road. This risk doesn’t just come from the Taliban (or other armed groups), but also from vehicle accidents, breakdowns and other contingencies.

The default approach for most evacuations is well-planned convoys with some kind of security escort. That’s obviously not a sensible option for Afghanistan right now. Instead, avoid organised convoys and move people on local buses or taxis. Consider breaking large groups up for road movement to reduce their signature and to minimise the impact of a single incident. Push a vehicle out in advance to ensure the larger group doesn’t get caught up at a dodgy checkpoint. Ensure a mix of genders and age groups in each vehicle. Also, carefully consider ethnicity and language.

Some groups have advised their evacuees to switch off their phones during road movement. My advice is to keep phones on and use passive tools like WhatsApp live location sharing to monitor the progress of groups on the move. I’m more concerned about knowing where people are and being responsive to potential incidents than I am about the risk of the Taliban intercepting WhatsApp messages (containing meaningless road trip updates).

For some transits, it’s useful to have a simple cover story in place for movement. Most checkpoints want to know where people have come from, where they are going to, and why they are going there. The idea is to be able to answer these questions in the most credible but boring way possible to avoid further scrutiny.

To date, at least in my experience, the Taliban have not been conducting intrusive searches of vehicles or belongings. Nonetheless, it’s best to assume they might, so keep any sensitive information tucked away and out of sight. If you can, only print travel documents when you’re close to your point of exit. This approach avoids a situation where you’re travelling with organisational letters, third-country visas, and other travel documents.

Taliban at checkpoints will be looking for something that doesn’t fit the picture. Make sure the types of vehicles, clothing, gear and paperwork are congruent with the stated purpose of travel. Basically, if the evacuees intend to say they are visiting their sick aunt for a few days, they shouldn’t look like they are leaving the country for good.

10. Know when to lead and know when to follow

In some cases, there are advantages of being the first group to test a new evacuation option. The first group will be able to take advantage of the unique conditions at that moment in time to leave the country. Of course, once others learn of their success, there will be a flood of other groups trying to do the same. We saw this at Torkham on Monday 13 September (and several days after that), when rumours of the border being open resulted in large crowds at the border, forcing the Taliban to close the border to pedestrians.

There are several lessons to be learned from this.

First, there’s an argument that the best approach is to be as discreet as possible with evacuations. Get your people out and don’t make a fanfare during the process. Perhaps share your approach with a few people you trust.

Second, if you see people being drawn to a seemingly successful evacuation option, you may want to sit tight and observe for a day or so. Monitor what occurs, understand the processes involved, and watch for any security concerns. Once you have evidence to suggest that low-risk and repeatable options are possible, that’s the time to leave.

As noted earlier, try to speak to the people people behind that successful evacuation and learn what made their operation work. You may find that they had made special arrangements that you won’t be able to replicate.

A good middle ground approach is to be set up so that you’re able to monitor the activities of other groups, and have all the necessary plans in place and resources available to move at short notice. In practice, most evacuation plans can be executed “next day” – decide today, re-position overnight, then be in place first thing in the morning to execute the plan. For one operation, we made the final decision at 6 p.m. and had the group on the road before 7 p.m.

11. Shut the f*ck up

I can understand the temptation to promote evacuations out of Afghanistan. It’s a great way to get people to rally around your cause, get funding, and get some personal publicity.

The other approach is to shut the f*ck up and just do the work.

Don’t telegraph your operations. Don’t even announce them once they’re done. Just work quietly and efficiently, and get as many people to safety as you can. That’s the mission.

There are numerous examples of operations that have only made it harder for others. While I appreciate the need for publicity — and the fact that it’s necessary to raise funds for evacuations — I’m not convinced such overt approaches are the best way to protect at-risk individuals or groups.

Instead, go about your business quietly and professionally. If you do share, discreetly share information about what worked and what didn’t work with others following a similar approach.

More thoughts on fundraising shortly.

12. Don’t make promises you can’t keep

Right now, the currency in Afghanistan is visas to third countries. I’ve received multiple offers of support from people to cross into neighbouring countries, on the condition that I help get third-country visas for their family members. Of course, I’m not in a position to be able to do that. I’m also not going to make a promise I know I can’t keep just to gain a short-term operational advantage.

While it’s heartbreaking not to be able to help, the practical reality is that there is no guarantee these individuals would actually be able to assist in an effective crossing. Even if I could get people across the border, then what? Any plan to illegally cross borders must be accompanied by a plan to then get the individuals out of that country to a third-country. Without valid entry paperwork, that will be more challenging than you think.

13. Anticipate challenges related to COVID-19

As if evacuations from Afghanistan weren’t already complex enough, we also have to contend with COVID-19.

PCR tests are required at land borders. If your evacuee group is travelling to a third country, you may also need to complete other health declarations in advance of travel. If there are delays between the time the group crosses a border and gets tested and their flight out of the country, they may require an additional PCR test before flying.

Regarding PCR tests, plan for a scenario where one or more person in the group tests positive. Do you leave them there alone to be quarantined? Do you leave one or more people from the group to stay nearby until they are out of quarantine?

Don’t assume that your evacuee group will be COVID-free. I know of several groups that had people test positive (40% of on one group tested positive).

An effective approach is to consider COVID risks well in advance. It’s likely evacuee groups will be spending a lot of time sitting around waiting for visas and viable evacuation options. These processes could take several weeks. Consider COVID risks during this period and minimise exposure with other groups. If your group is being accommodated in large event halls, get them into private apartments so that they can better manage their exposure.

In summary, ensure you understand the requirements of the destination country for PCR tests, travel declarations and quarantine. You don’t want to pull off a daring escape only to end up with your group in quarantine because you picked the wrong transit hub.

14. Separate fundraising and operations

There is a lot of fundraising going on to support the movement of people out of Afghanistan. Aside from the hope that this money will be going to the right places, here’s two thoughts on fundraising as it relates to evacuation operations:

  1. Don’t allow fundraising to compromise operational security. Donors need to know the “why”. They don’t need to know the “who”, the “how”, the “when”, or the “where”.

Not every problem is a problem you can solve by throwing money at it. If that were true, everyone who needed to get out of Afghanistan would be out already.

Right now, the most viable evacuation options are also the least expensive (provided you have the right documentation). More important than fundraising are the efforts to get countries to accept Afghan refugees and to assist those refugees transit out of the country.

There are probably a few more lessons learned I could add, but I think the points above cover most of my thoughts at this stage. Obvious disclaimer is that I have my own specific set of experiences in this context. I also have my own views about how evacuation operations should work. I appreciate that other people may not have the same views.

If you are trying to assist at-risk Afghan people to get out of Afghanistan, and you’ve sorted out the third-country resettlement requirement, I’d be happy to speak with you if you need advice on different options.

Founder, Spartan9.