AFGHANISTAN: Criminal groups pose significant risk to NGOs
A no-weapon sign outside an MSF hospital in Helmand Province
KABUL, 4 October 2010 (IRIN) - Armed violence has been widespread since the demise of the Taliban regime nine years ago but NGOs are not being deliberately targeted by Taliban insurgents, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO).
“We don’t believe the Taliban have a strategic intent to target NGOs,” Nic Lee, director of ANSO, told IRIN, adding that in areas under their control Taliban insurgents sometimes even prohibit attacks on NGOs.
The insurgents were responsible for 483 security incidents on 18 September - voting day in the parliamentary elections which the Taliban opposed - but only two mortars landed near NGO offices, causing no casualties, ANSO said.
“Armed violence has escalated phenomenally - 50-60 percent higher than last year - but incidents involving NGOs have decreased,” said Lee.
However, “collateral damage” and risks posed by criminal gangs are impeding aid activities, he said.
At least 84 security incidents
involving NGOs were recorded from 1 January to 15 September by ANSO.
In August, 10 workers of the NGO International Assistance Mission (IAM) and three local employees of Oxfam International were killed in two separate incidents in the northeastern province of Badakhshan.
"Oxfam has not yet resumed operations in Badakhshan but a security team is currently engaged in assessing the situation,” Louise Hancock, an Oxfam spokeswoman in Kabul, told IRIN on 30 September.
Where criminals operate freely
Many humanitarian agencies use no weapons and no armed guards to protect their offices and staff. They seek access and security through negotiations with different local actors.
However, in highly insecure and lawless areas, where neither the government nor the Taliban are fully in control, and criminal groups operate freely, aid organizations face serious risks of abduction, theft and other financially-motivated attacks, experts say.
In the past, experienced aid workers relied on their reputations and local contacts to be able to work in such areas.
There are no guarantees any more, said Kate Clark, a senior analyst with the Kabul-based think-tank Afghanistan Analyst Network (AAN), who has researched the IAM incident. She said “restriction” was becoming a common approach for foreign journalists and aid workers.
Many aid agencies reject the use of weapons and/or armed guards even in lawless areas.
“In areas where the government has less control, it is even more important to have a clear and visible no weapons policy, because any kind of weapons will make you a military target for opposition groups and international forces,” Michiel Hofman, country representative of Médecins Sans Frontières, told IRIN.
He said health centres are civilian areas and must be respected by all warring parties.
While warring sides, including Taliban insurgents, may not harm aid agencies deliberately, the same cannot be expected of armed criminals who find unarmed aid workers easy targets, particularly when there are no forces to stop them.
Of the 10 IAM employees mentioned above - two Afghans and eight foreigners (six of them health experts) who were shot dead in a remote area of Badakhshan on 5 August - two of the victims, Dan Terry and Tom Little (both US nationals) had worked in Afghanistan since the 1970s and were widely respected for their professional integrity.
The Taliban and another insurgent group, Hezb-e-Islami, claimed responsibility for the killings, accusing the victims of proselytizing. However, many believe these were “opportunistic” claims.
IAM and ANSO say the attackers were “non-local fighters”.
A purported Taliban commander from the area was quoted by AAN
as apologizing for the incident and calling it “murder”.
“It was political murder… more like hate, racist crime. They were killed because they were foreigners,” said AAN’s Kate Clark.
“…If it was a normal Taliban operation they would have been interested in kidnapping,” she said.