As war winds down, Afghan Taliban targets foreign civilian workers

As the withdrawal of US-led NATO troops in Afghanistan approaches, the Taliban and those they’ve recruited are targeting foreign civilian workers like the three American doctors killed this week.

Family Photo/AP
This undated photo provided by his family shows Dr. Jerry Umanos and his wife, Jan Schuitema Umanos, on the road from Kabul to Mazar-i-sharif in Afghanistan. Umanos was one of three physicians killed April 24, 2014, when an Afghan security guard opened fire on a group of foreign doctors at a hospital in Kabul.

The killing of three American doctors in a Kabul hospital Thursday by an Afghan police officer assigned to provide security at the American-run hospital is a tragic reminder of a shift in attacks on foreigners in Afghanistan from military to civilian targets.

After years of carrying out so-called green-on-blue violence, in which Afghan security forces have attacked American and other foreign soldiers working closely with the Afghan military and police, the Taliban, the uniformed forces they’ve recruited, and other Afghans motivated by anti-foreigner sentiments are increasingly turning their rage against foreign civilians.

Earlier this month an Afghan army officer killed a German Associated Press photographer covering the Afghan elections and wounded the Canadian AP reporter working with her.

Other attacks against foreigners, though not by uniformed Afghans, are part of the increase, resulting in a grim toll of at least 22 foreigners killed at the hands of Afghans – a number that surpasses the foreign soldiers killed by some form of hostile fire this year.

With the US-led NATO operation in Afghanistan drawing down to its scheduled conclusion at the end of the year, there are fewer foreign soldiers to become targets. With the drawdown, more soldiers are sticking closer to their bases, and after the past years’ spikes in green-on-blue attacks, measures have been put in place to reduce the risks of such attacks. New Afghan recruits training with Americans and other foreigners are often required to leave their weapons at a base entrance and are assigned fake “weapons” for training exercises, for example.

But civilians such as aid workers – or the doctors shot Thursday – are the foreigners now in most frequent contact with Afghans, and that leaves them susceptible to anti-foreigner attacks, experts in the field say.

“It’s hard to know what these attackers are thinking in choosing their targets, but I suspect what we’re seeing is a shift to softer targets that don’t regularly have armed escorts,” says Marla Keenan, managing director of the Washington office of Civilians in Conflict, an organization that works in Afghanistan and other war-torn countries to reduce the impact of armed conflict on civilian populations.

For some Afghans, the attacks on civilians reflect a new take on the Taliban’s objective of intimidation: frightening foreigners into leaving Afghanistan, and discouraging Afghans from working and associating with the “infidels” in the country.

“Targeting [foreign] civilians may be a new form of green-on-blue [violence],” says Parwiz Kawa, editor in chief of Hasht e Subh daily newspaper in Kabul. “The Taliban are trying to use different means for their pressure on the government and international community.”

Mr. Kawa says he doubts that Americans and other foreigners are likely to exit the country as a result of the attacks.

“American civilians know that Afghanistan is in war, and they are coming here with full knowledge of this fact,” he says. On the other hand, he says the violence has increased concerns of Afghans who appreciate the work that foreigners and development organizations are doing that they will abandon Afghanistan.

The attacks understandably have the international aid community reassessing their security arrangements, but Ms. Keenan at Civilians in Conflict echoes Kawa’s confidence that foreign civilians won’t respond by packing their bags for home.

The focus of aid groups in areas like education, health, and economic development “may have provided some sense of protection, but that may be shifting now,” Keenan says. Organizations will no doubt take a fresh look at security and whether it might have to be hardened, she says, but she adds that a dedication to the Afghan people and the goal of enabling them to improve living conditions in their country will keep foreigners working in Afghanistan.

That undaunted spirit shone through in the statement by the wife of one of the doctors killed in Thursday’s attack. Jan Schuitema Umanos said at her home in Chicago that her husband, Jerry Umanos, “always wanted us to serve underserved populations and Afghanistan was just one of them. He always had a desire to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

Mrs. Umanos, who also did several years of humanitarian work in Afghanistan, added, “I know Jerry would also like everybody to know about his love for the Afghan people.” She then added, “And we don’t hold any ill will toward the Afghan people in general, or even the gunman who did this.”

The gunman concluded his rampage by turning his gun on himself and firing, but colleagues of Dr. Umanos at CURE International hospital intervened and treated the gunman before he was taken into custody.

The other two Americans killed in Thursday’s attack were a father and son that Umanos was showing around the charity hospital.

 Kawa, the Afghan journalist, says that kind of dedication to development work will prevail over the anti-foreigners’ intimidation tactics. But he says another looming event – the close-out by December of NATO’s long mission in Afghanistan – is more likely to result in a smaller foreign civilian presence.

“The NATO withdrawal and aid cutoff may be a stronger factor for American civilians to leave the country,” he says.

Keenan says she doesn’t foresee organizations like hers leaving because of the international military departure, but she acknowledges that international assistance may very well fall as countries no longer have any military presence in Afghanistan.

Noting that donor countries can decide what money they put where based on where they have troops, she says it’s a “fair question” how much “donor countries will continue to support Afghanistan even when there’s not a Western military presence.”

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