Southern Afghanistan suffers as aid groups are harassed

Observers say the Taliban are targeting foreign workers to discredit the reconstruction process.

Mullah Jalal heads to his drought-stricken fields each day to oversee the work of his son and nephew - and to watch for the arrival of his guest. A poor Afghan farmer, he is waiting for the return of a Western aid worker who visited months ago promising he would help dig a well.

"I do not have enough for my family of 20 people to survive," says Mr. Jalal, who needs the water to restore his arid fields.

A spate of attacks on aid workers in Afghanistan has curtailed reconstruction efforts in the mostly Pashtun south, including Zabul province, where Jalal and many others wait for help.

Observers believe the Taliban are targeting aid groups in order to deepen the Pashtun vs. non-Pashtun divide and portray themselves as the only viable alternative to the Afghan government and its US backers.

"It is like a Catch-22 situation for the aid community," says Simon Schorno, an official of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "If we go, then there is a death threat, and if we do not, then people suffer enormously."

More than 200 Western nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are working to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. But as security problems outside Kabul persist, several Western NGOs, including International Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, and the World Food Program have pulled back their foreign aid workers from the south and are trying to provide help through local Afghan staffers or local organizations.

According to the World Food Program (WFP), potentially 1.3 million vulnerable people living in high-risk security areas may be adversely affected by the limited outreach of WFP and other UN agencies.

Serious problems for the foreign aid community started a few months ago, when an Ecuadorian water engineer with the ICRC was murdered in Uruzgan province by suspected Taliban fighters. The ICRC had given the alleged killer, a former mujahideen fighter, an artificial leg in the late 1980s.

In April, insurgents threw grenades in UNICEF's compound. UN offices in southeastern Gardez and Kandahar provinces have also been attacked with grenades - not sparing even the local Afghans working with them.

"In other conflict zones, we do have contact with armed groups, but not in Afghanistan as the Taliban fighters are not on the surface. We lost contact with them after their rule ended," says Mr. Schorno. "Unless we establish contact with Taliban it will be difficult for us to visit sensitive areas of Afghanistan where we lost one of our members."

But, by all appearances, insurgents have consciously turned against foreign aid workers despite work done during the days of the mujahideen resistance and Taliban rule.

Attacks on their local helpers as well suggest that more than xenophobia is at work. Rather, the attacks seem part of a concerted effort to undermine the reconstruction work itself.

"I was busy clearing mines with my colleagues on a route to Kandahar from Kabul when ... men fired at us and sped away in a car. Luckily none of us was hurt," says an Afghan named Abdur Razzaq. "We clear the land mines by putting our lives at stake, but instead of thanking us they issue death threats."

Afghans working with foreign NGOs face difficult times in their native villages as well, where the influential local clerics have issued decrees that anybody working with "infidel" foreigners is also an "infidel." "Villagers taunt us as puppets of the Americans and make the lives of our families miserable," says Mr. Razzaq.

"The life of an aid worker in Afghanistan is very difficult," says Maarten Roest, spokesman of the WFP in Kabul. "They need certain security to serve the needs of people of Afghanistan."

Calls for force expansion

Observers say the present security situation in Afghanistan is not stable despite the deployment of some 10,000 US troops and a 4,800-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

"The security spiral is downward, and the people of Afghanistan are now speaking of the 'days of better security under the Taliban,' " says a foreign aid worker.

Responding to the problem, more than 80 Western NGOs working in Afghanistan sent a letter to the United Nations. They called for the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force mandate (ISAF), in current operations and in August when NATO assumes control.

The letter joined a chorus, including a report cosponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, arguing that ISAF forces must be allowed outside Kabul and involved more directly in the disarmament campaign.

Meanwhile, Jalal is still waiting for the foreign aid worker to help his fields and family.

"I am living with hope, that's all I have. I know the gora (white men) will come. They said they would give us a better system, a future," says Jalal. "When they came to this country, they knew what is was like, but they said they would manage it and help us. So they will."

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