Elevated Kidnap Risk to Foreign Nationals in Afghanistan ahead of 2018 Elections

08/05/2018

The kidnapping of election officials and the numerous attacks on voter registration centres in April throughout Afghanistan highlight the growing insecurity ahead of parliamentary and district council elections scheduled for 20 October 2018.

Since voter registration began on 14 April, the Taliban and Islamic State (IS) militant groups have perpetrated a number of attacks. On 17 April, suspected Taliban gunmen attacked a voter registration centre in Ghor province, destroying documents before kidnapping three election workers and two police officers. The attack preceded a 22 April suicide bombing at a voter registration centre in Kabul claimed by IS that killed 57 people and injured a further 119.

Election periods are typically characterised by an elevated threat of attacks and security related incidents including kidnappings targeting both domestic and foreign nationals. The exposure gained from a successful attack during a period of heightened domestic and international media attention as well as the goal of derailing elections are key factors motivating militants to launch targeted raids. Similar dynamics were apparent during the 2009 and 2014 elections in Afghanistan that resulted in the reported kidnap of journalists and election commission officials.

NATIONWIDE PREVALENCE OF MILITANT GROUPS

The frequency and intensity of attacks is directly related to the significant control groups exert over rural areas of the country. According to a report by the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released on 30 April 2018, as of 31 January 2018 the Taliban were believed to either control or contest approximately 40-45% of the country’s 407 districts. Of the remaining territory, government control can often be only nominal as a number of rural areas are actually under the control of local warlords to whom security responsibilities are outsourced by the central government in Kabul.

Militants often operate with impunity which has enabled groups to conduct a number of attacks since the beginning of 2018, notably targeting foreign nationals and NGOs. One of the most notable incidents occurred in Kabul on 20 January when 22 people, including 14 foreign nationals, were killed during a 14-hour siege of the Intercontinental hotel by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. The situation in Afghanistan is expected to escalate as the Taliban’s annual spring offensive (Operation AL KHANDAQ) continues. It is in this environment of insecurity that elections are set to take place, having been repeatedly postponed since July 2015.

THE SECURITY CHALLENGE OF THE 2018 ELECTION

Given the persisting unstable security landscape, the presence of foreign nationals, and most notably journalists, NGO personnel and volunteers is likely to remain constant in Afghanistan within the coming months. Furthermore, considering that elections are nationwide and voter registration centres and polling stations will need to be set up in rural areas exposed to a range of security threats, the Afghan government will need to act to ensure the security of visitors. In doing so, they will be spreading thin their already-strained security forces, leaving foreign nationals vulnerable to abduction attempts by militant elements amid further attacks following the initiation of Operation AL KHANDAQ. The kidnap threat to foreign nationals in Afghanistan is, therefore, expected to remain critical in line with the Taliban’s strategy of “crushing, killing and capturing American invaders and their supporters”.

TRAVEL RISK MANAGEMENT

The security environment in Afghanistan will remain highly volatile in the short to medium term, with the threat of kidnap and violent attacks targeting foreign nationals remaining critical. Travellers to the region should be aware of the appropriate security procedures needed to enhance their safety. NYA can advise you on prevailing local threats and support you throughout your travels through our range of Travel Risk Management services and our dedicated team of highly-experienced consultants.