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Taliban wages war on aid groups

Wednesday's ambush by the militants killed three Western aid workers and their Afghan driver. It's part of an apparent bid to rid Afghanistan of foreign aid workers.

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Insurgents regularly intimidate NGO employees and obstruct their work, accusing foreigners of being spies and aiding the central government. Humanitarian work in some regions of the country is extremely dangerous, and many agencies have curtailed their activities in these areas.

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However, until this year, there were relatively few high-profile attacks against NGOs.

In 2003, Taliban fighters ambushed a convoy of the International Committee of the Red Cross and murdered one foreign aid worker in the southern province of Uruzgan.

The incident sparked the evacuation of many NGOs from the restive southern provinces to Kabul.

Last year, the Taliban abducted nearly 20 South Korean missionaries and murdered two of them before releasing the rest for a large ransom.

In January, insurgents kidnapped an American NGO worker, who is officially listed as missing although authorities fear that she is dead. But despite such incidents, insurgents have largely avoided large-scale attacks against the foreign aid workers.

Taliban strategy: encircle Kabul

This spring, the Taliban announced that encircling Kabul would be its main strategic objective in 2008. The number of insurgent-initiated attacks in the provinces bordering Kabul jumped by 50 percent this year, according to data from the Vigilant Strategic Services of Afghanistan, a security analyst firm.

The Taliban, a ragtag force that often employs crude methods and weaponry, is usually no match for Coalition forces.

In recent months, militants switched to soft targets and masterminded a series of high-profile assaults, starting with a raid on a luxury hotel in Kabul in January.

"The Taliban know that they can gain a lot from high-profile attacks against the aid organizations and other noncombatants," Mr. Rahmani says. "A simple ambush like this gets the whole world talking, more than any drawn out military battle with Coalition forces" could.

NGOs' key role

Afghanistan's weak central government and lack of infrastructure means that NGOs are one of the main providers of social services such healthcare, education, and development.

By striking at aid organizations, insurgents hope to exploit the government's inability to stand on its own.

"This is very dangerous for Afghanistan," says Rahmani. "Aid agencies have an important role in strengthening the Afghan state and improving its public image.

But without such agencies, the government becomes very weak, unable to provide basic services for its people – a situation that the Taliban will exploit readily."

As instability and violence spread north from Kandahar and Helmand to the areas around Kabul, aid agencies may be pushed farther north.

With the central government's presence already minimal in some of the districts just south of Kabul – a recent US intelligence estimate declared that the national government controls only about 30 percent of the country – the Taliban will be left to fill the vacuum.

For many in the aid community, Wednesday's attacks came as a painful reminder that security is and will be for some time the primary concern of humanitarian agencies.

"I think things are going to only get worse, especially with the [2009 Afghan presidential] elections coming up," says an employee at a prominent international NGO who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"In order for us to operate, the local communities must guarantee our safety," says the employee. "If not, aid work becomes very difficult."