Aid Workers Under the Gun

KABUL, Afghanistan-Taliban gunmen attack an aid vehicle outside Kabul, killing four workers including three Western women. An Afghan staffer for a French aid group is abducted and murdered in Kunduz. Insurgents kidnap and repeatedly shoot a Japanese agricultural specialist near Jalalabad. A United Nations convoy is attacked and two Afghan doctors killed in Kandahar province.

The steady drumbeat of brutal, targeted attacks over a single late summer month have put the Afghanistan aid community on high alert. Some agencies have pulled internationals, others suspended operations; the rest remain watchful, wary and concerned.

"Because of the attacks, because of the abductions, because of the killings," said M. Hashim Mayar, who's been working with non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan for more than 15 years, "this is the worst security environment I've seen."

Mayar is deputy director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), an independent aid coordinator that recently released a report revealing that insurgent attacks have increased nearly 50 percent this year. Total security incidents hit 983 in August, according to the United Nations, the hightest total since the fall of the Taliban. Through September, 30 aid workers have been killed - double last year's total - and in early October U.N. special representative Kai Eide appealed to Taliban leaders to allow aid distribution. Insecurity has spread into previously stable parts of north and central Afghanistan, encroaching ever closer to the capital.

"This is a new and recent tactic on the part of the Taliban," said Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. First it was suicide bombs, he explained, and then isolating districts and provinces - now they've moved on to humanitarian agencies. "They see aid workers as furthering the government's agenda, and so they are enemy targets just like the U.S. and the Afghan army. The general security situation has never been worse, and until the military forces combat the Taliban, aid workers must learn to adjust."

Tactical shift

The ancient Persians called Afghanistan "the land of the unruly," and for the 21st century aid worker it is still no picnic. Some question what the insurgents accomplish by targeting people trying to help Afghanistan.

"In some cases it's because we're easier targets," said Ciaran Donnelly, country director for the International Rescue Committee, which suffered the vehicle attack that killed four staffers. "In some cases it's to instill fear in communities and in our staff and in the general population that nobody is safe, to create a heightened sense of intimidation."

In some cases, it's working. Shortly after the killing of 31-year-old agricultural specialist Kazuya Ito, Peshawar-Kai, which for 25 years provided medical aid and alternative livelihoods to Afghans along both sides of Pak border, pulled its 8 Japanese staffers out of Afghanistan. Several other Japanese aid organizations - including the Basic Human Needs Association and the Association for Aid and Relief - have done the same.

"Aid agencies play a crucial role in strengthening Afghanistan and helping its people," said Rahmani. "Losing them would be a major blow."

Facing greater insecurity

For the moment, most are planning to stay and continue much-needed, if circumscribed, operations.

"One very clear decision that has been made is that IRC is not leaving Afghanistan," said Donnelly shortly after the attack. IRC, which has been delivering aid in Afghanistan for 28 years, suspended operations after the attack but plans to slowly restart work by October.

"The situation is so fluid in Afghanistan these days that really to implement programs in any part of the country you have to be extremely flexible and reactive to a very fast-paced and dynamic operating environment," he said, citing plans for fewer field visits by staff and a quick trigger on suspending operations when necessary. "Any sign of threats to our staff and we'll be able to hopefully pull back in again."

Nigel Pont, country director for New York-based aid group Mercy Corps, offered a different perspective.

"The situation is worse than it's been in quite a while, across the board," Pont said during an outdoor lunch at one of Kabul's handful of high security, expat-friendly restaurants. Mercy Corps has been in Afghanistan for more than 20 years, working in agriculture and microfinance across eight provinces. "But we're confident because our national security management teams are very good."

Those teams meet regularly to make security decisions for operations across Afghanistan - about which places are safe, what precautions to take, and what time of day to move around. Like most aid organizations, Mercy Corps employs a low-profile approach, which essentially means going under the radar: no organizational signage and minimum security; unmarked cars with private plates that are used on a rotating basis and take a variety of routes to and from work; no razor wire, flags or armed security at the office; predominantly Afghan staffers who live in local housing, wear local dress and travel sterilized, without work identification, cellphone or any incriminating documents.

Some organizations go even further. Employees of the Afghan Health and Development Services, a Kabul-based aid group, travel without any paper or writing tools, thinking the Taliban assume that if you are literate, you must work with an NGO. The Spanish-funded Association for Cooperation with Afghanistan bars staffers from moving more than 10 kilometers outside the western city of Herat. Several of the female Afghan employees of Arghand Cooperative, an NGO run by former National Public Radio reporter Sarah Chayes that sells soaps and oils made from local products, have been prodded by greater insecurity in outlying districts to move into Kandahar.

The debate over low-profile operations continues apace. The attacked IRC vehicle and U.N. convoy bore identifying stickers and signage, but no protection. The Afghan government has recommended that all NGOs travel with armed escorts, while ACBAR advises all NGOs and aid organizations to operate with a low profile.

"We want overall security so that our NGOs can move freely, so that they don't need to be escorted," said Mayar. "The first goal of the [NATO-run] provincial reconstruction teams and the military forces is to bring stability, security, and that's what they should do."

In late August the civilian and military actors in Afghanistan signed a new set of guidelines, laid out by the United Nations, intended to prevent the blurring of lines between humanitarian agencies and the military. Many are hoping the new agreement will improve aid worker safety, but it may be too late.

"The Taliban, they are spreading these night letters now that whoever works for NGOs, they are spies and they should be punished," said Mayar. "They will not believe in us anymore."

But local communities might. The majority of aid workers in Afghanistan are Afghans: IRC has 550 national staff and only 10 foreigners; Mercy Corps has about 400 nationals and 10 foreigners; and the worldwide conflict zone and reconstruction staff of the United Nations is nearly 80 percent local nationals. Particularly in hostile environments, a reliance on local communities - to help guide projects, address security concerns and communicate new developments - can make or break aid efforts.

Around the capital, the noose tightens

For the first time since the Taliban left eight years ago, Kabul is becoming one of those hostile environments. A series of fierce attacks - a Taliban assault on Kabul's finest hotel, the Serena; an April assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai; the Indian Embassy bombing in July, which killed 40; a massive insurgent attack that killed 10 French soldiers not far from Kabul - has residents feeling under siege.

"Day by day the attacks are closer to Kabul," Rahmani said. "If not inside Kabul city, the Taliban are certainly active very near and around Kabul. If they are not pushed back they will come to the capital."

Further, crime has been on the uptick along with a profusion of small arms. Kidnapping, murder, theft and other violent crimes have increased steadily in Kabul over the past year. As a result, security restrictions on international staffers within the city have become extremely tight.

"When I first arrived we were able to walk around, but now it's different," said Richard Nash, a development consultant who spoke to Devex in September.

Like most foreign workers, he is barred from walking outside, even a few hundred meters. And although the banged-up white-and-yellow Corollas are ubiquitous, cheap and generally safe, public taxis are off limits - transport is strictly via armored SUV.

"All the organizations seem to be cracking down more and more," Nash said, "especially over the last few months."

Most agencies have instituted phased arrivals at work or no-movement zones outside their offices in the morning, when most attacks occur. They maintain a very short list of safe cafes and restaurants and keep close tabs on their workers via mobile phones and radio networks as well as a strict curfew. Thus most expat staffers live their lives sealed inside high-riding vehicles and air-conditioned homes and offices, cut off from the very people they've come to help.

Field work in the surrounding area is nearly impossible. Provinces close to Kabul, such as Wardak, Ghazni and Logar, were easy to visit even last year. But the Afghanistan NGO Security Office has since summer been urging journalists and aid workers to fly to Bamiyan and Jalalabad instead of taking the increasingly dangerous roads. On September 12, Logar Gov. Abdullah Wardak was assassinated near his home in the town of Paghman, about 20 kilometres west of the capital.

"I'm from Wardak, right close to Kabul, and I can't even go home," said Mayar. "Last year I could, but now the road is just terrible because of the Taliban."

Roads going out of the capital in every direction but one - north, to Panjshir and the stronghold of the Northern Alliance - are now off-limits, effectively cutting off access to the central and eastern regions of the country.

What's at stake

The escalating violence has kept aid groups from many of the most needy, forced the closure of dozens of schools and health clinics and impaired vital development projects. And the timing of the aid attacks couldn't be worse; a terrible harvest, a drought, and predictions for a harsh winter have left up to 9 million Afghans facing a food shortage, according to the British charity Oxfam, which is warning of a "humanitarian crisis."

It's not just in Afghanistan. Aid workers working in conflict zones have always been aware of the threat of kidnappings and violent attacks. But the problem has doubled in the past five years, in direct relation with the need for aid and development assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some 1,000 have been killed worldwide in the past 15 years, according to some estimates.

For every aid worker injured or killed, thousands of locals are left without assistance. After the killing of several Medecins Sans Frontieres workers in Somalia this year, aid agencies cut back their programming severely, further endangering the estimated 3 million hungry Somalis. Rahmani and other observers worry that if the attacks continue, the humanitarians will pack up and go home.

"People say this all the time," said Mayar, of ACBAR. "'If the security gets worse the NGOs will leave Afghanistan,' but it's not the case. The NGOs know that if they leave the insurgents will be very happy - and that's not what they want."

Either way, aid work in Afghanistan will require more safety - and courage - than ever before.

-- posted on devex.com on October 10.

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