With attack on UN, Afghanistan aid presence shrinks further

The UN's decision to withdraw 200 workers after an attack at a Kabul guesthouse could prompt other aid groups to rethink their presence.

Mohammad Rafi Hamdard, a food importer in Kabul, puts the following prices on the United Nations decision to withdraw staff from Afghanistan: $15 more for a ton of flour, $5 more for 50 kilograms of sugar and $3 more for a carton of cooking oil.

That it became almost immediately harder for Afghans to put food on the table is just one of many consequences of a staff drawdown that the UN says is temporary.

Food prices have been rising since the beginning of the fraud-marred presidential election as political uncertainty led to hoarding and disrupted distribution.

But Kabul residents had anticipated that prices would fall with last week's announcement that President Hamid Karzai had won. Instead, says Mr. Hamdard and an official in the Ministry of Economy, the UN has injected new doubts and price shocks with its decision Thursday to temporarily pull out some of its foreign staff.

"The biggest trading companies are worrying that here there is no good security, so they aren't importing the same amount as before," says Hamdard. "If there is less material being imported, the prices go up."

UN as safety gauge

The UN retreat has sent a signal of concern not just to markets but to other nonprofit groups helping rebuild the country and Afghans who have staked their hopes on the NGOs projects.

"Whenever a UN unit is active in one part of Afghanistan, people in that place are thinking there is peace. If they pull out, for sure the people are thinking negatively," says M. Qasim Ahmadzai, a Ministry of Economy official in charge of registering nongovernmental organizations. "So far, no NGOs have decided yet to leave, but they may."

Currently, 1,530 national NGOs and 341 international NGOs are registered with the government.

The UN announced Thursday it would temporarily withdraw some 200 workers from Afghanistan and withdraw a further 400 foreign workers from the field to safer urban locations after gunmen stormed a guesthouse in Kabul late last month. The five UN workers killed were elections staff involved in hurriedly preparing for a second round runoff vote which was later canceled.

So far, the NGO community here has largely interpreted the incident narrowly as an attack against the elections, not against NGOs generally, says a security expert in Kabul whose organization prefers to keep a low profile.

"Long experience and a solid relationship of confidence and mutual respect with local population and elders have been the decisive elements when deciding whether to continue or withdraw. But even that mutual trust is becoming less and less reliable, simply because the population is under increasing pressure, both from the foreign armies and the 'Taliban,' " says an international NGO worker.

NGO presence shrivels

Aid experts describe a retreat that started several years ago from the rural parts of districts to the district centers. Then, in the past year, a pull back from the district centers to the provincial capitals. Now, organizations are withdrawing to Kabul. Those projects still outside Kabul are increasingly reached only by airplane; but development, to be cost-effective and widely useful, requires roads.

It's like a ripe plum shriveling up to a prune, says Sarah Crowe, the regional spokesperson for UNICEF.

"Work continues, but the security situation has impinged on how we can operate. The humanitarian space has shrunk considerably," says Ms. Crowe. "There's a expanding number of areas that are no-go, and that's a worry, especially after the attack [at the guesthouse] – that took it to a whole new level."

UNICEF, a branch of the UN that works for the welfare of children, is temporarily pulling out 14 of its 42 staff. All the heads of sections, says Crowe, will remain.

The international NGO worker argues the UN should have offered the option for its staff to relocate, rather than issue a blanket relocation. "That's a bad signal to everyone: The perpetrators are getting what they want and are encouraged to continue, and the population feels more and more abandoned, realizing how little it takes to frighten us away, and to leave them alone to fend for themselves, in every possible field."

Some shrug at UN's departure

Some Afghans are not all that torn up about seeing the UN go.

"We don't need the UN agencies, the UN agencies are a burden," says Ashraf Ghani, a former minister of finance and presidential candidate. "NGOs are a mixture, some have done superb work in Afghanistan…. If the environment for the Swedish Committee or the Aga Khan [Development Network], if that gets restricted, that's when people pay a price."

When asked about the UN pullout's impact President Karzai, in an interview to air Monday on PBS's NewsHour, said: "No impact. No impact…. They may or may not return. Afghanistan won't notice it."

The security expert questions if the loss of staff at this point matters all that much when the lack of access outside Kabul leaves little reason to be in country. Security needs to be improved first: "People are applying a postconflict development model, but this is a war zone."

Ahmadzai, the Ministry of Economy official, argues the security problems will fix themselves when development comes.

"The reason for the lack of security is that many Afghans are jobless. If they can have work, there will be peace," says Ahmadzai.

Ahmadzai admits there is a vexing chicken-and-egg nature to this argument. He argues for extremely close coordination with the military. Areas that are truly too dangerous should be cleared of insurgents first, he says, with NGOs immediately stepping into the breach to put shovel to dirt.

Can soldiers dispense aid?

This, in fact, describes the US plan for a "civilian surge" to augment additional troops sent to Afghanistan. The trick is finding the civilians for the job.

Many independent NGOs are wary of appearing to work closely with the military because it could jeopardize their status as neutral noncombatants and they could be roped into intelligence gathering. US government agencies, meanwhile, are skittish about sending their officials into still-smoldering battlefields – at least not without a military escort that is off-putting to locals.

Another approach is to hire former military officers to oversee some of this work. That's the example set by Tim Lynch, a former Marine major doing development projects out of Jalalabad. He's armed and has military training, but carries both lightly.

"I got real comfortable driving all over this country with just a few guys for security and all of us in local clothes and just being respectful," says Mr. Lynch. The work ahead requires taking managed risks, he suggests. "It isn't going to be like fortress Kabul where you have pools and verandas and tennis courts. You have to live like Marines."

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