Who will rescue Nepalis from Afghanistan?

Ex-Nepal Army soldier Dhan Singh Dhami worked for a US defence contractor guarding the American Embassy in Kabul and assisted NATO forces in Helmand Province from 2004-2015. As the Taliban advances in Kabul, many other Nepalis in Afghanistan are at risk. Photo: NEPALI TIMES ARCHIVE

As the Taliban closes in on Kabul, international media attention on the rescue of Western diplomats has overshadowed the plight of thousands of international contract workers, including Nepalis, stranded there.

There is no exact count of how many Nepalis workers there are in the war-torn country, but figures range from 2,000 to 15,000. The Nepal Embassy in New Delhi, which is also accredited to Afghanistan, says it is in touch with Nepalis there but seems to be laying its bets on Indian rescue flights.

If flights are not possible, the only way out would be to negotiate a safe passage out for Nepalis through Pakistan. This will need coordination with the Pakistan government though the Nepal embassy in Islamabad. 

Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has not been able to expand his cabinet even a month after his coalition government came to power, and there is no foreign minister. Preoccupied with politics and fighting the pandemic, the government has left the Nepalis in Afghanistan to their own devices.

The opposition RPP is the only party so far that has called on the government to bring back Nepalis from Kabul. In a joint statement, the party’s leaders Kamal Thapa, Pashupati SJB Rana and Prakash Lohani on Sunday demanded that the government ‘ensure the safe return’ of Nepalis in Afghanistan.

The end-game in Afghanistan has also coincided with Gurkha veterans in the British Army on hunger strike in London demanding equal pension with US soldiers. The RPP statement also expressed ‘solidarity with their struggle’.

Besides Nepalis in the British Army who used to be deployed in Helmand and other provinces and were withdrawn, there are still many retired Nepali veterans from the British and Indian Armies, Singapore Police, as well as Nepal Army and Police who worked as security guards for private defence contractors.

They worked as security guards for US and British defence contractors based in Kabul, Bagram Air Base, Kandahar and other military installations. While some third country workers left as the US withdrew from Bagram and other bases last month, there were still many Nepalis guarding Western embassies in Kabul. 

American and British troops arrived in Kabul this weekend to evacuate their diplomats and nationals, but the contract workers will have to find their own way out on very limited flights.

Some Nepalis working for private contractors who managed to get out on some of the last flights are now stranded in Dubai, and cannot get home because of Covid-19 restrictions in the UAE.

Many of the Nepalis worked for logistics companies like the Texas-Based Fluor or Turkish sub-contractors, while security guards were hired by the American private security firm DynCorp International, or the UK-based Aegis Defence.

Aegis alone used to have more than 1,000 Nepalis on contract in Afghanistan before the latest Taliban offensive. Besides working as security guards, military escort and in demining operations, Nepalis have also been hired as construction workers, cooks, cleaners and as support staff. 

Many of the Nepalis who have managed to get out are said to be ready to be recruited again to go to other dangerous countries like Iraq. In 2004, 12 Nepalis working for a private contractor in Baghdad were massacred in cold blood by extremists, prompting the Nepal government to ban Nepalis from going to that country.

Again, after the death of 13 Nepalis guarding the Canadian Embassy in a terrorist attack in Kabul in June 2016, the Nepal government had banned nationals from going to Afghanistan.

However, a government fact-finding team visited Afghanistan later that year to assess the danger, and the Labour Ministry later lifted the ban and recommended measures, including approval of work contracts that included safety provisions.

Nepal Embassy in New Delhi on Sunday 15 August released security advisory for Nepalis in Afghanistan.

Legally, Nepalis and other foreign workers in war zones like Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya fall between the cracks. The US and Britain get to lessen exposure to their own troops by hiring nationals from other countries through private contractors for much less money and fewer facilities. There is also no legal obligation during emergencies like this.

The Nepali guards at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul in 2016, for example, were hired by Sabre International, a private contractor. Families of the security guards sued the Canadian government in 2018, and finally reached a settlement verdict on compensation at the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in Toronto last year. 

Five of the Nepali soldiers wounded in the attack and 13 widows of those killed were awarded a total of $20.4 million in compensation. The guards were killed when a lone suicide bomber blew up the unarmoured bus taking them to the Canadian embassy for their duty.

After the attack Sabre International terminated its contract with the Canadian embassy, and shut down operations. Representing the Nepali plaintiffs, Canadian lawyer Joe Fiorante had told CBC: “These men died in the service of our country and have basically been cast aside…They were abandoned by our government and we thought that was dishonourable and frankly unacceptable.” 

The American and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, has now left Nepalis and other nationals working for them in a similar predicament. Although a Taliban offensive was expected, what has shocked many is the speed at which the US-trained, equipped, and funded Afghan security forces have either surrendered or been defeated. 

There are no accurate figures for the number of foreign contract workers still in Afghanistan, but many had been leaving, and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction put the number at 7,000. It is not clear how many are still there. 

However, besides registered Nepalis there are also said to be many other undocumented workers of which neither the government in Nepal nor the embassy in New Delhi have exact figures. Many have been cheated by their recruiters, and are stranded there.

“Everyone has been so focused on the U.S. troops, and also the Afghans, interpreters and others who could face revenge killings by a resurgent Taliban," said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch to Los Angeles Times. “About the stranded foreign workers, the Biden administration can say, well, their companies and their governments should have moved heaven and earth to get them home.”

Meanwhile, Globalnews.ca reported that Canada had not approved the evacuation of 100 Nepali guards from its embassy in Kabul, even after its other staff were flown out.