The brazen daylight kidnapping of three international aid workers in Kabul last week by armed militants is a stark reminder that Afghanistan's security remains fragile.
Mirroring the tactics of Iraqi insurgents, the Afghan kidnappers have demanded that the United Nations withdraw its staff from Afghanistan or else the three captured UN workers - Filipino Angelito Nayan, British citizen Annetta Flanigan, and Kosovar Shqipe Habibi - would be killed.
Kidnapping is an age-old practice in Afghanistan, but traditionally the motive is profit, not politics. "These things evolve. If the UN pays money to liberate the three volunteers, you can be sure that this tactic will spread," says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer in Pakistan. "If it becomes discredited [in the minds of Afghans] it will fade."
From Iraq to Afghanistan to the Sudanese province of Darfur, the very notion of impartial humanitarian support is coming under unprecedented attack. Aid workers complain they are often caught between two implacable foes - the US and Islamic insurgents - who have blurred the line between combatants and civilians to the detriment of the vulnerable.
"People have lost sight of what humanitarian action means; it's not for personal interests or international interests, it's for people in need," says an aid worker, requesting anonymity to avoid causing further trouble for the kidnap victims. "If you blur the distinction between civilians and combatants, and you extrapolate that, you have to wonder whether in fact there can be any kind of humanitarian efforts anywhere."
Aid workers - most of whom have spent their careers operating in conflict zones - say that the increasing dangers in Afghanistan and Iraq are rooted in the "hearts and minds" methods of the war on terrorism. By sending US troops to conduct what would ordinarily be seen as development work, or by requiring aid workers to coordinate their activities with those of the Western coalition, it becomes easier to identify aid workers - however falsely - as pro-Western and therefore justifiable targets for violence.
While Western aid workers are more likely to get media attention, most of the aid workers who actually have died in Afghanistan and Iraq have been national staffers, the humanitarian worker adds. "When you target foreigners, it's for publicity. But the people who get targeted most, who work day in and day out, are the nationals."
The local staff is able to keep working long after their foreign colleagues are withdrawn - but even they must close shop when the situation deteriorates too far. The international staff typically serves as a bridge to the international community - a vital communication and fundraising link that breaks down when aid groups must rely on national staff only.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, foreign aid workers say they are taking increased security precautions since the kidnapping of the three UN election workers. Turkish engineers and Indian workers were taken hostage by militants but this is the first time that Westerners have been kidnapped. Adding to the sense of insecurity, they were taken from their vehicle in heavily guarded Kabul, where around 5,000 peacekeeping troops have been deployed.
"It will make Western aid workers and foreigners nervous," says an Islamabad-based foreign aid worker. "The militants want to hamper aid work of the international community and create doubts among common Afghans that they are still a threat without realizing that it will affect Afghans the most. Our job is to provide aid purely on humanitarian grounds."
The kidnapping is the latest incident to disrupt the postelection euphoria that many Western officials and Afghan citizens had felt after last month's peaceful presidential elections. Many saw the calm as a publicity defeat for the Taliban, which had failed to deliver on their threats to attack Afghan voters on election day. But attacks have increased over the past few weeks, including a suicide bomb attack in a Kabul market last month, in which an American woman and an Afghan girl were killed by a man with grenades strapped to his body.
Behind the kidnapping is a group calling itself the Jaish-e-Muslamin, or Army of the Muslims. Formed in December 2001 by former Taliban commander Syed Akbar Agha, the group formed a broader alliance ahead of the election to disrupt the polls.
Jaish-e-Muslamin claims to have 5,600 militants, but those familiar with the working of these rebel groups say the number is closer to a few hundred.
Mr. Agha is a veteran commander who had fought against the Soviets in the 1980s. He joined the Taliban ranks after the emergence of the militia in 1994, but parted ways after a falling out with the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, apparently over the distribution of arms and money.
"Whosoever is an enemy of the US is our friend," says Agha, reached by phone by the Monitor. "Unlike the Taliban, we want to build alliances by reaching out to other like-minded groups. Anyone who is fighting against the occupying forces is welcome to our ranks."
Agha told the Agence France-Presse news agency that the three election workers were being held in separate locations to prevent any rescue effort by coalition or Afghan forces. Such an attempt to rescue one would trigger the execution of the other two, Agha said.
Jaish-e-Muslamin was unheard of until last year, and observers say that the group appears to be trying to challenge the Taliban's dominance. Jaish's demand for the release of all prisoners held at US bases as well as the exit of foreign forces and UN employees is part of that strategy to become a powerful and influential Afghan rebel group.
"Jaish-e-Muslamin, by kidnapping Westerners, wants to legitimize its group in the world of Afghan rebel militant groups," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Peshawar-based expert on Afghan affairs.
A purported spokesman for Jaish told The Associated Press that negotiations with Afghan authorities had broken down and that the group would decide Friday whether to kill the trio.
Like the insurgents in Iraq, Jaish faces a more powerful enemy and has therefore adopted tactics of guerrilla warfare and terror attacks against soft targets. Among the copy-cat techniques are the videotaped kidnapping as well as suicide attacks, once unseen in Afghanistan.
"It seems to be based on Iraq's pattern, but the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are different," says Mohammad Riaz, a Peshawar-based analyst. "In Iraq, Iraqis are offering resistance to the US-led forces by perceiving them as occupying forces, but common Afghans are sick and tired of decades-long war and bloodbath."
"But if the kidnappings of Westerners become a pattern, then it has serious implications in Afghanistan," says Mr. Riaz "There are so many vested interests in Afghanistan which want foreign forces to withdraw. There is Al Qaeda, there is Taliban and there is strong international drug mafia and there is always a fear of these forces could cash in on this dangerous pattern."