WASHINGTON –Security for aid workers in Afghanistan is deteriorating and nongovernment organizations blame U.S. development policies for putting more lives at risk.
The U.S. Agency for International Development requires that humanitarian aid projects in Afghanistan support the military’s war strategy, a policy that has made aid workers targets for the Taliban, nongovernment organizations say.
“There are more attacks on aid workers now,” said Ann Richard, vice president of government relations at the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernment organization with programs in Afghanistan. “Security for NGOs has gone in the opposite direction.”
USAID policies explicitly support the counterinsurgency war strategy in Afghanistan, and the agency allocates funding to nongovernment organizations based on how their projects “contribute to COIN goals,” according to agency guidelines. COIN is shorthand for counterinsurgency, the war strategy used in the Iraq and Afghanistan that coordinates military force with development and peacekeeping efforts to defeat insurgent groups.
USAID grants require aid organizations work closely with the military on projects such as “battlefield clean up,” where aid workers are sent to clean up post-conflict damage in communities where there was heavy fighting, Richard said.
Merging nongovernment aid projects with military operations has tarnished the apolitical, impartial image critical to the safety of aid workers, many organizations say. The general assumption among Afghans is that aid organizations are working for the U.S. military, said one aid worker who helps run medical programs for an organization that has worked in Afghanistan for more than 15 years.
“If there’s anger at the military, then often times the NGOs will have to pay for it,” said the aid worker, who asked not to be named for fear he might jeopardize the organization’s programs.
Three aid workers were killed in July when suicide bombers attacked the compound of Development Alternatives, a consulting group that helps implements USAID development projects in Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which officials said was a response to the recent surge of U.S. troops.
“Even the perception of being tied to the military can have tragic results,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at Center for American Progress and a former State Department official.
Development aid has been tied to counterinsurgency since the war strategy was implemented in Iraq during the Bush administration, but only recently have nonprofits started to collectively push back. The Obama administration has ratcheted up aid efforts in Afghanistan, where the need for infrastructure and humanitarian aid far exceeds that in Iraq.
Safety concerns are paramount in Afghanistan, where insurgents are killing civilians at a rate three times higher than they did during the Iraq war, according to a paper released in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The Taliban’s murder of 10 members of Christian organization International Assistance Mission on Aug. 5 has escalated fears among aid workers.
“It’s not a good situation,” said Beth Cole, director of intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Institution of Peace. “The Taliban are circling Kabul. The days are waning.”
Since the start of 2010, there have been 76 attacks on nongovernment workers in Afghanistan, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent group that provides security information for humanitarian workers in the country. Fifteen of those incidents, which include violent attacks and abduction, occurred in July.
Several nongovernment organizations working in Afghanistan have stopped applying for USAID funding and are instead seeking more funding from private donors and the EU, aid workers reported. Still, many organizations say they cannot regain the trust they worked to earn in Afghan communities since long before the 2001 U.S. invasion.
Some argue that aid workers’ blame is misplaced. Because of the increased threat from insurgent groups, development organizations have to learn to work closer with the military, said Richard Owens, director for community stabilization at International Relief and Development.
“You cannot rely on your good relationship with the local communicates to keep you safe anymore,” said Owens, who has a background in coordinating military-civilian operations. “In a world where the Taliban exists, all bets are off.”
Nonprofits are “naive” to think association with the military puts them at greater risk, said Andrew Natsios, a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University and USAID administrator from 2001 to 2006. The Taliban target aid organizations because they are bringing development to Afghanistan, Natsios said.
“Whatever is not 12th century in their world view is regarded as the enemy,” Natsios said. “What the Taliban is fighting against is modernization.”
According to media reports, the Taliban killed the Christian aid workers earlier this month because they were “spying” for the U.S. and “preaching Christianity.” The international group included Afghan nationals and had worked in the country for more than 30 years.
A senior adviser at one high-profile aid organization working in Afghanistan said his organization had been doing development work in Taliban-controlled areas because aid workers spent years proving to insurgents that they did not have a political mission. The organization is rethinking where they can send workers and type of projects they can do under increased security threats.
Development efforts have shifted to areas in Afghanistan where U.S. military forces are concentrated. Health programs in other areas of the country have been shut down, replaced by new projects in the south and east, where fighting is the heaviest, said Leonard Rubenstein, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins and former U.S. Institute of Peace fellow.
The inequitable distribution of aid runs contrary to nonprofit development practices that stress equitable resources across ethnic groups and has created animosity among some communities “who feel they are being penalized for being peaceful,” according to research by Andrew Wilder, an expert on governance and aid in Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Some nongovernment organizations fear communities that have lost development projects may lash out at aid workers, creating new conflict in previously stable areas.
“It’s actually counterproductive,” Rubenstein said. “You’re really shooting yourself in the foot.”