by Nathan Hamm on 7/30/2004 · 9 comments

Chrenkoff tears apart Doctors Without Borders’ stated reasons for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Can’t say I disagree regarding the attitude of the organization, which is also noted by Blackfive.

Now, I never had any interaction with DWB in Uzbekistan. What I heard about them was, at best, mixed, in regards to their treatment of Peace Corps Volunteers (though one guy had great experiences with them). Like so many other NGOs, they tended to view PCVs as untrained, unprofessional amateurs who were wasting their time.

Needless to say, I took a dim view of foreigners who lived in compounds and drove around in Land Cruisers, but, you’ve all heard that before.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Tom Bissell July 30, 2004 at 1:14 pm

My experiences with MSF in Uzbekistan were overwhelmingly positive. I spent a couple days with them in Mazar-i-Sharif, too, and they were good folks. Brave, too, especially since they were the only NGO left operating there when I was in town and security was fairly dicey. But this pullout rationale is pretty outrageous. While I detest the Bush administration’s unwillingness to do what it promised it would do in A-stan, I, like you, cannot imagine that the Taliban is less dangerous than SF forces. Seems to me this is a pretty algebraic attempt by the insurgency to target all the soft targets they can in an effort to isolate the hard targets. When are people going to realize that crumbling to psychopaths just makes it worse for everyone in the long run?

Alisher July 30, 2004 at 1:27 pm

The withdrawal of MSF is already having a negative impact on the overall humanitarian work in Afghanistan. Today, I received a letter from a french friend who works for another french NGO in Afghanistan, ACTED, asking if I would be interested to do internship with them in Afghanistan. The reason: the people they recruited and who were supposed to go to Afghanistan have started to refuse the work after the MSF has withdrawn, citing security reasons…

praktike July 30, 2004 at 1:41 pm

What I read the aid community saying is that the US military, in functioning as a relief organization, has blurred the distinction between itself and the NGOs.

So the NGOs are worried that they will now be targeted everywhere as agents of US foreign policy and as indistinguishable from US soldiers.

I think it’s a valid concern, and Chrenkoff just fired off a bunch of talking points rather than a real argument or a solution to a real problem.

Nathan July 30, 2004 at 1:55 pm

You’re right praktike. At the same time, I think it’s just a teensy little lie to blame the soldiers. They’d surely be targets either way. Many of the recent targets in Iraq speak to that, I think.

I think that Blackfive’s piece is a good compliment to this, because it points out that many aid organizations have a pretty pissy attitude. There are some things they can’t do and some things that the military can do better.

The question has to be asked, are they asking Coalition forces to withdraw and let the Taliban move back in so that aid organizations can work in peace?

Tom, thanks for chiming in as another person who’s had good experiences with MSF. An UZ-10 stationed in Nukus became good friends with them. They’ve always been an organization that I’ve had to put in their own category. They’re brave and they get things done.

praktike July 30, 2004 at 2:37 pm

For some reason, I can’t seem to load up the Blackfive piece. I’ll try again later.

In any case, I guess I just wonder what the solution is … I doubt the Pentagon is eager to take over all of the functions of the aid groups. On the other hand, I’m sure there are some ideologues in the Bush Administration who view NGOs as inherently suspicious, apologists for murderers and blah blah blah. Well, that sounds good, but unless you’re willing to fill in the gap and do what these groups do, then it’s just propaganda. Obviously, the efforts of these groups cannot be as comprehensive; they don’t have the logistical, financial, or security resources to do the job on their own.

Maybe MSF is wrong to point fingers at the Pentagon here; maybe it’s just a power struggle because they and other aid groups see their turf being infringed upon. Fair enough. Maybe the Taliban/AQ are just being smart and deliberate in isolating the US.

So what’s the answer? What do we do now?

Nathan July 30, 2004 at 3:02 pm

I think that part of the equation is that aid organizations need to get over themselves. The military can compliment their missions by providing security. I get the impression that they don’t want it and not just for the reason that it causes their role to be confused.

I am sure that most Afghans are pretty sensible people. Help is help whoever gives it. People who don’t feel that way probably correspond pretty closely to the “stability’s bad if the outsiders bring it” crowd.

I can’t help but feel that MSF’s attitude in this case is a little bit like the UN’s was in Iraq–refuse protection and cry foul when attacked. I’d be pretty happy if aid organizations put politics aside, sucked it up, and decided they’d do good for those they want to serve, even if that means working alongside the US government.

Solomon July 31, 2004 at 8:21 pm

The Chrenkoff piece fisks the Independent’s article which, if his quotes give the correct impression, and it’s perfectly believable that they should – this is the Independent, after all – they “gleefully” focus on MSF’s criticism’s of the US. But reading the New York Times piece linked, one finds more nuanced reasoning. The bad guys have been targeting all sorts of aid workers for a long time there. Nothing new, and nothing having to do with anyone mistaking MSF people for combatants. Remember? These are the worst of the worst bad-guys. They don’t care. In fact, aid workers are tempting soft targets for them. They’re killing people who are helping to set up the vote.

As mentioned, it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation for the US. Always has been. Stay to the military mission and you’re blamed for that (failing to bring Afghanistan out of the Middle Ages fast enouugh), risk your lives on humanitarian work as well and they still find a way to damn you – rather than the real murderers. And since when are army medics and aid workers any more legitimate targets than non-military? That’s why they wear Red Crosses right? “Don’t shoot me, I’m a medic.” You’re right, Nathan, the Iraq/UN situation is exactly what I thought of. The UN refuses security and then blames the US when some fellows who didn’t have the respect for their mission they thought they were due blew them to hell. Someone needs to remind these guys that the rules they think they opperate under aren’t as universal and respected as they seem to fantasize they are.

I haven’t looked up yet to see how much of the “blame the US” business is just media spin, and how much MSF really did that themselves, but let’s say I’m not impressed fi they did. Would hey complain less if the US were pacifying Afghanistan more forcefully? I doubt it. Somehow I feel that those on the Left who criticize the Administration’s actions in Afghanistan aren’t doing it because the Administration hasn’t been forceful enough. I don’t recall that Afghanistan was much of a haven for international aid organizations under the Taliban. The US is doing what it can, also under difficult circumstances.

Oh, and may I point out among all the carping about US actions in Afghanistan, that this was supposed to be the invasion that *didn’t* squander all that so-called international good will we had after 9/11. “International Good-Will” patooie

Solomon July 31, 2004 at 8:41 pm

Well, no surprise. I just read the statement at the MSF site:

It’s not great, still implying responsibility for the US, but on the whole it provides much more balance than indicated by The Independent’s headline. The Independent basically took the one paragraph they found convenient and wrote their story around it. No surprise.

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