11 Oct 2010

Why aid workers will continue to be targeted in Afghanistan

Chief Correspondent

With the news that Linda Norgrove may have been killed by a hand grenade thrown by one of her would-be rescuers, our Chief Correspondent Alex Thomson looks at the charged background against which aid agencies have to operate in Afghanistan.

A little context goes a long way in times of war. So it might be useful to look at the environment in which western NGOs are working in Afghanistan, given the recent deaths of two British women.

From the outset in a war now twice as old as World War Two, the west has dangerously blurred the distinction between military war and civilian aid.

The US airforce dropped food aid during its initial Afghan bombing campaign in 2001. What were civilians supposed to make of a war in which the Americans could pancake your house with high-explosive – or lob a parcel of food and blankets through your roof?

And so this war has continued down the years. Across the land PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) fanned out to re-drill wells, rebuild schools, distribute farmers’ seed and so forth.

But these were – are – military teams doing this. Eight years ago this was supposed to pave the way, win hearts and minds, establish that permissive environment into which the power of the new Afghan government would grow and flourish: peace in our time.

It has failed of course. Utterly.

But it’s also created the fact on the ground that much aid and reconstruction is delivered not by NGOs but by the PRT soldiers, armed and in uniform.

So it’s hardly surprising that many people simply assume that NGOs are also part of NATO or part of the American occupation.

Most Afghans see this war for what it really is: a US-led occupation and the nuances of NATO, ISAF and so forth don’t mean much.

On both counts they’re right of course.

But this all leaves genuinely civilian NGOs in an even tougher working environment.

Westerners are already (rightly) seen as walking ATMs. On top of that an insurgency pinning down the greatest arsenal the world has yet seen with small arms will clearly take any target it can get.

And NGOs are clearly targets. No point in wringing our hands at the wrongness of this. A lot of point in examining why it is so.

Add to this caustic mix the fact that many NGOs are from the same countries occupying Afghanistan by force: UK, US, Germany, France and so forth.

On top of that, some are avowedly Christian organisations in a war seen by the insurgents as being between the Christian west and the Muslim east. For whatever else you may say about it that belief is certainly part of the mix.

Take all these undeniable facts, historic and present, and you see what being an aid charity is really all about in Afghanistan.

Not in terms of the good work they do – but how they will be perceived.

Given that, those running NGOs from pleasant safe offices in London and Washington should take a very much longer, very much harder look at themselves than they already have, and ask whether they can justify putting the lives of their young, dedicated (but arguably naive) staff at risk?

Oh – and just to really foul up the aid environment completely in Afghanistan, NGOs have long been concerned about allegations that US military special forces have in the past used fake NGO cover for their operations – just as they were concerned in Iraq – with similar allegations made against the British SAS and SBS.

So when our politicians wring their hands and talk long and loud about the terrible situation of kidnapping NGO staff – they should also take a moment to consider how their conduct in this long war has contributed to turning fine and courageous British civilians, into targets.

No, nothing whatever can excuse taking civilians on the battlefield any longer than necessary to establish they are who they say they are.

But the British and American conduct in this war has done much to raise doubts in many an Afghan mind about who really is a charity and who really is an army.

Therefore: expect more kidnappings and more deaths.