SALAR, AFGHANISTAN — By most standards, Mohammad Sharif and his Belgian shepherd dog Brenda would be considered heroes. Day after day, the man-and-dog team work to detect land mines lurking beneath the soil along Afghanistan's busiest highway, the Kabul to Kandahar road.
But in recent months, Mr. Sharif's aid agency, the Mine Dog Center (MDC), has come under attack by Taliban extremists and sympathizers. But it hasn't stopped Sharif and his team. At least, not yet.
"Whatever the conditions are in the country, we have to continue to do our work," says Sharif, as Brenda licks the face of a visiting journalist. "We did this work during the mujahideen government, we did it during the Taliban government, and we're doing it now. This work is just for the welfare of the people."
With attacks against aid workers increasing dramatically over the past six months, it is those like Sharif who keep Afghanistan's reconstruction process moving forward - risking their lives in the process. Many other foreign aid groups have halted their work, pulling back from dangerous Afghan provinces despite having worked here throughout the many violent twists of the country's 23 years of war.
Before, most aid workers could depend on the reputation of their agency and the decency of the combatants to keep them from harm. But as the Taliban extends its jihad, or holy struggle, to any group that aids in the reconstruction of the country, humanitarian groups are having to reassess the risks of their work, and whether a good deed is worth a person's life.
"The security situation has deteriorated in the last six months, particularly in Ghazni Province," says Manoel de Almeida e Silva, spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan in Kabul. "Aid agencies that have been attacked will not continue working in those areas, and deploy to places that are safer."
This pullback could have profound political consequences, Mr. Almeida adds. With aid agencies leaving mainly the south and southeast of Afghanistan - Pashtun areas where the Taliban are most active, and also where the five-year drought continues - local residents may feel no reason to support the government of President Hamid Karzai, and instead tacitly support the Taliban.
Most people mark the turning point in Taliban strategy to the March killing of Salvadoran aid worker Ricardo Munguia, a representative for the International Committee for the Red Cross. According to the Red Cross driver, an Afghan national who was allowed to escape, Taliban gunmen pulled Mr. Munguia from his car, called up a Taliban commander on their satellite phone for instructions, and then shot Munguia dead, point blank.
Since that killing, more than a dozen aid workers, mostly Afghans have been killed in ambushes or at impromptu checkpoints, while dozens more have been attacked or injured. The killing reached a deadly high point in early September, with the killing of four Afghan well-drillers working for the Danish agency DACAAR near the southern Afghan city of Moqor.
It's a situation that has many aid groups questioning the most fundamental assumption behind their job. Does the principle of neutrality provide any protection?
The attacks on demining groups is in some ways the most surprising. In addition to attacks on MDC, Taliban guerrillas or sympathizers have attacked other demining agencies as well, such as the Afghan-run group ATC.
Taliban supreme ruler Mullah Mohammad Omar repeatedly praised demining groups for their work in ridding the country of millions of land mines and unexploded bombs left behind after the Soviet invasion. Many Taliban commanders, many of them victims of land mine explosions themselves, provided security for deminers to work.
But the Taliban have apparently changed their minds and their methods, arguing that any relief group that receives American funding or works in support of the US-backed government of President Hamid Karzai are deserving of attack.
In a statement faxed to the Associated Press this month, the Taliban explained their new strategy.
"Our government has always respected the people who are working in NGOs that really want to build Afghanistan," read the Taliban statement. "But there is another kind of NGO which only uses the name NGO but is actually working and spying for the United States. We advise Taliban all over the country to attack them and extradite them from Afghanistan."
However, attacks on NGOs have followed no such rhyme or reason.
In this new world where lines are blurred between combatant and relief worker, the MDC has continued to work. Using specially trained Belgian shepherds, the US- and UN-funded agency has cleared about 100 million square meters of minefields in the past nine years, the vast majority in high-density urban areas or agricultural zones and pasture lands where most Afghans make their livelihood.
At MDC headquarters in Kabul, deputy director Mohammad Arif says that he believes his organization still can work in Afghanistan without fear.
"We want to free Afghanistan of mines, and we are ready to do our work," says Mr. Arif. "The majority of people know that we are independent. We worked during the Taliban period, and they guaranteed our safety. We are not afraid, because we don't ally with any politicians."
But even Arif admits that this independence didn't stop unknown assailants from attacking an MDC group in Wardak Province on August 18. No one in the group was injured in the late-night attack, but the assailants burned one vehicle, fired a rocket-propelled grenade at another vehicle, and stole a third.
"Now that they are attacking us deminers, I'm really surprised," says Engineer Mohammad Azeem, team leader for the mine-surveying team of the Mine Clearance Program Agency, a UN agency that works together with MDC. "This is the most dangerous situation I have faced, and I've been doing this for 14 years. The Taliban used to respect us. They used to bring us food and give us a place to stay at night. Now my people are scared, and the villagers are scared too."
Saniullah, a young man who recently joined MDC, says he wants the central government to "stabilize the security situation so that we can do our job properly."
But he has never considered leaving his job, or his boisterous young Belgian shepherd, Owen. "I have never thought of leaving. This is our country. These are our people. I have to perform my duties."
The only thing that could keep Mohammad Sharif home from work, he says, is his wife. "My wife worries about me," he says. "So every day, I tell her, we are safe, we are 100 percent safe." He smiles. "And if there has been an incident of attack against MDC, we don't tell our families."