The execution-style killings of 10 people working for a Christian medical team in a remote region of northern Afghanistan fit into Taliban insurgents' stated shift in tactics: Target Western civilians, especially Christians, as "foreign invaders."
The Taliban took credit for one of the deadliest attacks yet on aid workers in Afghanistan, saying the Christian charity workers were proselytizing to poor villagers – a charge that the International Assistance Mission, which dispatched the team, denies.
The bodies of six Americans, a Briton, a German, and two Afghan interpreters were discovered Friday in a forested part of Badakhshan Province in remote northern Afghanistan – until now considered a relatively peaceful region known mostly to adventure travelers. The only person in the party not killed was a local translator who offered proof he was a Muslim by quoting the Koran, according to the Associated Press.
The attack represents the largest single toll of American civilian deaths in Afghanistan since December, when a suicide bomber killed seven members of a CIA team. It also points to the operational viability of Taliban insurgents' stated intent to target foreign aid workers as combatants.
"There has been a rise in politically motivated attacks" against aid workers, according to a 2008 roundup of aid worker deaths by Change.org, a Web consortium of social justice groups. "Many rebel and insurgent groups no longer see humanitarian workers as neutral or independent." After killing four aid workers in 2008, the Taliban issued a statement saying their group was working for "foreign invader forces," according to Change.org.
The International Assistance Mission has operated under kings, warlords, and the Taliban since it began its work in Afghanistan in 1966, making it the longest-serving nongovernmental organization in the country. "This tragedy negatively impacts our ability to continue serving the Afghan people as IAM has been doing since 1966," the organization wrote on its website. "We hope it will not stop our work that benefits over a quarter of a million Afghans each year."
At least one killed in the attack would have been very familiar with that trend. American optometrist Tom Little was detained and thrown out of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001 for allegedly proselytizing. He returned to Afghanistan after the American invasion following the 9/11 terrorism attacks. On Friday, Dr. Little was among the dead in Karan Wa Munjan district of Badakhshan, where the killings took place.
The number of aid workers killed worldwide jumped from 29 in 1999 to a record 122 in 2008. In Afghanistan alone, 33 were killed in 2008. Just last month, four people involved with the US-based development firm DAI were killed after gunmen stormed its Kunduz Province offices.
The medical team was attacked as it was returning to Kabul from a 15-day tour providing eye care to rural villagers in the Parun valley. According to information posted before the journey by one of the slain doctors, Karen Woo of Britain, part of the trek involved a packhorse train across 16,000-foot-high mountain peaks.
"The expedition will require a lot of physical and mental resolve and will not be without risk but ultimately, I believe that the provision of medical treatment is of fundamental importance and that the effort is worth it in order to assist those who need it most," Dr. Woo wrote on a website.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for the attack in conversations with Western reporters. "One of our patrols confronted a group of foreigners," Mr. Mujahid was quoted as saying. "They were Christian missionaries and we killed them all." In the past, the Taliban has claimed responsibility for attacks carried out in actuality by bandits and independent warlords.
But the Los Angeles Times quoted Gen. Agha Nur Kamtuz, police chief in Badakhshan, saying the area had become dangerous in the past month, with intense fighting taking place between Taliban and Western-backed Afghan security forces.
"People told them it was dangerous," Mr. Kamtuz told the Times. "They said they were doctors and no one had anything against them."