Losing humanitarian perspective in Afghanistan

The brutal killing earlier this month of five aid workers from the frontline health agency, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), represents yet another disconcerting indication of Afghanistan's deteriorating security situation and the failure of NATO members to tackle the real issues at hand.

Since the beginning of 2004, at least 38 aid workers have been killed in insurgent attacks, mainly by former Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other Islamic or Pashtun nationalist elements. This is almost twice as many as last year. While bandits and drug traffickers are partly to blame for the killings, MSF believes that the June 3 assault against its team in the normally calm northwestern province of Badghis was politically motivated.

Afghans and expatriates alike are increasingly pointing fingers at Islamic extremist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar for a growing portion of this violence. A former resistance politician with massive human rights abuses to his name, Mr. Hekmatyar was backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Pakistanis during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Today, Hekmatyar's role as a key opponent to the administration of President Hamid Karzai stands out as one of the most glaring examples of short-sighted policies of the past coming back to haunt Afghanistan. Having declared jihad against his former American patrons, Hekmatyar is now a designated an "international terrorist," with US-led coalition forces having tried to kill or capture him since early 2002.

Despite ample warnings during the 1980s by aid groups, journalists, and even certain US State Department officials, the CIA refused to curb its backing of Islamic fundamentalists, arguing that they represented the most effective resistance fighters. The West also ignored concerns about walking away once the Red Army had withdrawn, leaving factions of well-armed guerrillas to bicker among themselves. This resulted in widespread civil war and lawlessness, eventually enabling the rise of the Taliban and the ability of Al Qaeda to operate virtually without constraint.

The MSF murders suggest that coalition forces must bear some of the responsibility for rising attacks against aid workers. Ever since the October 2001 intervention, US and other military forces have consistently sought to usurp humanitarian operations for their own purposes, endangering relief personnel by placing them in the same caldron as soldiers.

The military are also involved in providing humanitarian assistance through the deployment of armed Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs, causing great confusion. As in Iraq, insurgents in Afghanistan no longer differentiate between soldiers and aid workers, but consider them part and parcel of the same Western "anti-Islamic crusade."

Last April, for example, US planes began dropping leaflets in southern Afghanistan demanding that people pass on any relevant information regarding the Taliban, Al Qaeda, or Hekmatyar to the coalition forces in order to "continue receiving humanitarian aid."

"The deliberate linking of humanitarian aid with military objectives destroys the meaning of humanitarianism," asserts Nelke Manders, head of MSF's Afghanistan mission. "It will result, in the end, in the neediest Afghans not getting badly needed aid - and those providing aid being targeted."

The spreading violence is seriously hampering reconstruction projects and forcing aid groups, such as the International Red Cross and UN agencies, to limit or close their operations. Many expatriates are being pulled out of the country or being restricted to Kabul.

This is bad news for Afghanistan. The lack of aid, principally to the Pashtun regions where the Taliban initially found much of its support, is convincing many that this is a deliberate attempt to deny them the benefits of reconstruction, notably jobs. Resentment toward Westerners is swelling, providing fertile ground for the insurgent groups willing to pay good money for fighters.

Poor security is also having a severe impact on the country's elections, scheduled for September. The UN has yet to register 75 percent of Afghanistan's 10.5 million voters. In many places, it is simply too dangerous. Election coordinators are voicing doubts that registration will be completed in time - thus compromising the legitimacy of the elections that, according to a recent survey by the Asia Foundation, most Afghans seem to want.

The country's 6,000-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), run by NATO since last July, has only 400 troops based outside Kabul. The international humanitarian community is now appealing for it to expand its peacekeeping mandate from the capital to the regions.

Afghanistan's future is now very much at stake. Most humanitarians and the majority of the country's war-weary civilian population would welcome a broader, more protective peacekeeping role. But this needs to be clearly defined in the interests of ordinary Afghans. Few of the country's 100,000 militia fighters controlled by the warlords have been disarmed. This poses serious questions about the ability to hold a free and fair vote without fear of intimidation. Some of the warlords are also involved in assuring the country's massive drug trade, which in 2003 supplied 75 percent of the world's heroin.

Some NATO officers privately agree that the ISAF urgently needs to respond more realistically to the situation. But this can only happen, they stress, if member states provide the necessary resources for a significant increase in troops on the ground. Most NATO members seem very reluctant to do so - but this issue will be a deciding factor for the success or failure of the NATO mission, the organization's first outside Europe.

Peacekeeping, however, needs to go hand in hand with reconstruction. There is little point in providing additional development funding - $8.2 billion at the donor-pledging conference in Berlin last April - unless it can be implemented where it is most needed.

It's doubtful that the recent addition of 2,200 US marines to the now 20,000-strong coalition force to step up operations with Pakistan against antigovernment groups will do the trick.

This is a moment of painful déjà vu. Coalition troops are encountering many of the same problems the Red Army did during the 1980s. The terrain is difficult and insurgents are able to rely on local support. Military operations, too, are inciting further anti-Western fervor. Many tribal Pashtuns regard Mr. Karzai as a Western stooge, just as they once considered former communist President Babrak Karmal a lackey of Moscow.

The fear is that the lack of effective international commitment toward improving security will lead to further conflict - even to a collapse of the country's fragile recovery. There is also concern that the world has already begun walking away from Afghanistan, just as the West did following the Soviet withdrawal.

Afghanistan offers no quick or politically expedient solutions. Nor can its security predicament be resolved by military intervention alone. What is needed is a long-term, dedicated, and imaginative commitment that involves nationwide peacekeeping and recovery. If not, as has occurred with the reappearance of Hekmatyar, the West can expect to pay for its lack of vision for years to come.

Edward Girardet, who has reported on Afghanistan for the Monitor and other publications for 25 years, is an editor of the 'Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan' in the CROSSLINES Humanitarian and Conflict Zone series.

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