Violence against Aid Workers in Afghanistan

by Joel Hafvenstein on 4/2/2011 · 28 comments

The mob violence in Mazar yesterday was horrendous, and my heart goes out to the family, friends and colleagues of the UN workers who were murdered.

Like many people, I’ve been reflecting on where it fits into all the downhill trends in Afghanistan.  I can’t quite agree with Josh‘s early thoughts:

Something has changed here, and it’s something bad. Starting with the Serena Hotel bombing three years ago, there has been a steady increase in violence directed directly at aid workers in Afghanistan. First the insurgency, and now, it seems, regular Afghans, increasingly see those aid workers as part of the problem, and not any kind of solution.

I agree that aid work — all aid work — has been tarnished by perceptions of corruption and ineffectiveness.  But I don’t think it’s quite right to talk about a steady increase in violence against aid workers in Afghanistan.  That’s been a popular meme for a while, and it feeds into wrong-headed articles like this one, which argue that humanitarian aid workers under Taliban fire ought to abandon the pretense of neutrality and get down to winning hearts and minds for NATO and the Afghan government.

The reports of the Afghanistan NGO Safety Organization (ANSO) tell a different story.  Here’s the latest, which argues on page 5 that “NGOs are not broadly or routinely targeted by Armed Opposition Groups,” and that if anything there has been a downward trend in insurgent and criminal attacks on humanitarian aid workers (both Afghan and international) since 2008, despite yearly expansion in the overall war.

Since at least the January 2008 Serena attack, it’s been clear that the Afghan insurgents have no compunction about going after international civilians; but of course there are different kinds of civilian work going on in Afghanistan.  The Serena Hotel was primarily a haunt for diplomats and contractors, and the Taliban rationale for the attack referred to NATO-linked international delegations there (and, depending on which spokesman you listened to, the Norwegian Foreign Minister).

If the insurgents were actually after foreign aid workers, they would have their pick of far softer targets.  Pointedly targeting one or two of the most popular restaurants in Qala-i-Fatullah, or the office of a major humanitarian NGO, would immediately shrivel the international presence in Kabul.  In some of the complex attacks launched against multiple ministries in Kabul over the last few years, it would have been trivially easy — almost an afterthought — to deploy one of the swarming bombers and gunmen against a major NGO office.

But most Afghan insurgents are strategic enough to distinguish between aid work aimed at building the reputation of the Afghan government and aid work with humbler, mostly community-centric goals.  When an aid program is seen as a way for the government to “score points” — for example, the National Solidarity Program — it is likely to draw insurgent fire, even if it’s popular at community level and implemented by an NGO that protests its neutrality.  Ditto for aid delivered by PRTs and USAID contractors, who are explicitly working to strengthen the government and have indeed come under intense and increasing attack.

By contrast, the policy of most insurgents towards humanitarian NGOs invites fishing rather than hunting metaphors: catch-and-release, not targeting.  As the Taliban and like-minded groups have expanded their geographical reach, there has been a soaring upward trend in abductions of Afghan staff who work for humanitarian agencies (both international and national).  In virtually all of the cases — 100%, last year — the staff have been freed promptly and without harm (see again the ANSO report).  The insurgents check with the community where the NGO operates, and if the community representatives confirm that the NGO is welcome there and hasn’t been promoting the government or “un-Islamic” ideas, the detained staff are released.

That’s not how it works with genuinely insurgent-targeted groups, like government officials or (in some areas) teachers.  (Or de-mining NGOs in areas where the Taliban use landmines).  While USAID contractors in Afghanistan moved en masse to using private armed security as far back as 2004-06, 99.75% of humanitarian NGOs still don’t use private security companies or any form of armed protection, even those working in Kandahar, Kunduz, or Kunar.

Contra the grumbles of some pundits, I don’t think the Taliban generally spare NGO aid work because it’s ineffective and hence meaningless in the conflict.  I’ve worked with both USAID contractors and humanitarian NGOs, and witnessed PRT projects; and for work at community level (as opposed to, say, major infrastructure projects or government capacity-building) I’ve generally seen the best results from NGOs.  Rather, the  insurgents spare it because it’s locally popular — in the sense that communities who have aid generally want more of it, and resent anyone (including the NGOs providing it) who is seen as limiting the supply — and because the Afghan government, rightly, gets limited credit for most of it.  Only where the aid is delivered with an explicit agenda of winning points for the government (or, less commonly, when it crosses a Taliban ideological red line) does it make sense for the insurgents to risk community disgruntlement by cutting it off.

The UN occupies a complex middle ground in this landscape.  On the one hand, it’s the single most significant provider of humanitarian aid, keeping thousands of Afghan families fed and supporting countless refugees and IDPs.  If it were ever to pull out of the country, the impact would be catastrophic; and there’s no evidence I’m aware of to suggest that the Taliban envision a UN-free Afghanistan any time soon.  On the other, the UN has an explicit mandate to support the internationally recognized government of Hamid Karzai.  UNAMA itself ran the first elections in 2004, and despite an official handover to the Afghan authorities in 2009, many Afghans still assumed the UN was running the electoral show. It was horrible but not surprising when the Taliban attacked the UN guesthouse in Kabul during the height of the 2009 election season.

Ultimately, the UN has ended up as a high-profile symbol of both international humanitarianism and international political intervention in Afghanistan — and the latter makes UN facilities vulnerable not only to Taliban attack, but to angry crowds looking for a scapegoat.  That’s unlikely to change.  Several big international NGOs appealed in 2008 for the UN to open an Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to institutionally separate the UN’s humanitarian work from its political work.  Even though their wish was granted, they’ve been generally disappointed with the results, and I fear the politicization of the UN in Afghanistan will continue until the current war is much closer to a resolution, one way or another.

So while yesterday’s murders were horrific, I don’t think they fit a pattern of growing violent rejection of all aid work in Afghanistan, let alone a shift toward insurgent targeting of aid agencies.  Yes, foreigners in Afghanistan will always be vulnerable to violence incited by extremists both Afghan and Western; foreigners working for agencies with a political mandate will be even more vulnerable.  And yes, Afghan disillusionment with aid work is widespread.  It’s not seen as “the solution,” because there’s now an ingrained expectation that most of it will be lost to corruption and expensive foreigners.  At the same time, humanitarian aid workers and organisations who focus on delivering assistance at community level — rather than trying to contribute to a politically charged campaign of national stabilization — are still able to operate in most areas of Afghanistan at acceptable levels of risk, even without armed protection.  They’re still saving lives, and I definitely don’t think the day has come for them to leave.


P.S.  Hope no one reads anything I’ve written above to imply that national stabilization is undesirable, that politically motivated aid is illegitimate, or that anything remotely justifies yesterday’s violence.  Stabilization and security would do more to improve Afghans’ lives than all the work of humanitarian aid agencies.  But as the prospect of stability continues to recede, it becomes all the more important to negotiate a political space where all sides agree (explicitly or tacitly) that humanitarian work can go on — and rumors of that space’s death have been greatly exaggerated.


Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

This post was written by...

– author of 8 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


carl April 2, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Very good article. It helps to define what normal may be so abnormal can be discerned.

Michael Kleinman April 2, 2011 at 3:46 pm

For what it’s worth, I couldn’t agree more

Adam April 2, 2011 at 3:59 pm

Excellent Joel! From my experience Joel is realistic and hopefully such cool heads prevail.

Phil April 3, 2011 at 2:23 am

Nice Joel – a very succinct summary of the current context.
A further concern is the narrative and actions of Karzai’s government over the past months. Although it could be considered as cyclical, Rasoul’s note to the UNSC over the extension of the UN mandate, the view in some provinces that NGOs are essentially contractors for the government, the increasing visibility of the ulema in many government decrees, and the often antagonistic relations with ISAF could be placed against the ‘Transition’ backdrop. The country is justifiably reasserting its sovereignty, but what remains to be seen, is how this will be articulated. If sovereignty is defined ‘against’ the international community – then the operating environment for NGOs – in terms of security and government intervention – will be even more challenging.

Joel Hafvenstein April 3, 2011 at 7:02 am

Thanks, Phil — good points.

I think “succinct” is too kind. 🙂

Steve Magribi April 3, 2011 at 5:03 am

Thanks for the view from the Beltway reassuring.

Here is the view from Kunar…

I have been in meetings with more than one insurgent over the years, and that is not what they think at all. Met with several in a village last night. No they do not stand up and tell me who they are. My other friends tell me when they have left. These folks only talk to me because I have been hanging around for ten years.

Official policy on the front lines is: remove the foreigners as soon as you can. This means where the insurgents actually control an area, and do not need monetary payments from aid groups, the foreign aid programs are out. They do not want them, they do not want the foreign aid. They do not want Kafirs polluting the population. Sounds harsh, but that is what they say and think.

Foreign aid programs, government based or not are seen as corrupt, for profit and of limited “true” value. The aid folks are seen as leeches who travel from place to place profiting along with the corrupt and the militaries of the world. You won’t hear this from your English speaking staff, but from those looking in.

It was stated to me like this…”What can these foreign businesses give us to help our people that we guided by God cannot give our own people. Islamic aid is always the best..” This said to the nodding heads of even the “progovernment” elders.

I hate to pop the bubble. But, no in a Taliban ruled Afghanistan you are not welcome. There are so many targets in Kabul, they are just working their way through them. The aid community will be in on the list somewhere, and sooner or later. Kunduz last year was a pretty clear example. The Christian based groups have been identified clearly.

It is so “aid community” to even associate themselves with the events in Mazar. During the Mazar riots “any foreigner” was the target. No one cares if you work for “Care” or “This Wonderful Children’s Fund.” Kafir is a kafir is a kafir. But that is during the riot. Even I had to have an escort from the local chieftains during the past several days. Their instruction was “take care of this kafir, he is our friend..protect him”

The view is…Go to Libya or Ivory Coast and take your stuff out of Kabul…Aid groups because they are so clueless are not going to be welcome here any more.

Better embed with ISAF while you can.

Joel Hafvenstein April 3, 2011 at 7:02 am

Hey Steve — all respect for your ten years in country and the relationships and perspective that’s given you. ANSO’s not a Beltway organization, and the analysis I just offered wasn’t concocted in my London armchair; it was what my NGO team (Afghan and expat) lived by from 2008-10 in the south and the northwest.

There’s clearly no broad-based insurgent policy to go hunting foreign aid workers; if there were, we’d have seen it. That doesn’t make it safe for us as individuals to romp around darkest Kunar. And of course there are areas, villages, and insurgent commanders that reject foreign aid on ideological grounds. But on the evidence, they’re not the norm. When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan, they didn’t kick out the international humanitarian groups, and they haven’t in most of the turf they control today.

Steve Magribi April 3, 2011 at 9:16 am

Up after darkest prayers…Joel..Kunar is beautiful.

The insurgents are fighting 150 thousand ISAF forces, 300plus thousand ANSF, and sometimes the Pakistani Army and Frontier Forces.

Aid Groups are clearly not on their “most important” issue list now. My point was that in their mindset their is not room for foreign influence in Post War Afghanistan, provided they win.

Does that mean that there will be no aid groups in the future? No. But nor are they going to be welcomed with flowers, and in Districts under their control, a no foreign groups edict is indeed out.

For some us, several on Registan from time to time-we have been here a long time, so we are normally “guests” when visiting. Aid Groups, especially non-Afghan ones are not under any “guest” coverage, so it is not safe for unknown foreigners anyware outside of the Serena and in the “foreign enclave” neighborhoods. Going to Dubai seems like the safe decision to me for most of them.

The insurgent political command does have a clear idea of which groups are “USGOV” and which groups have a somewhat neutral vision. Obviously the USGOV groups are fair game, and the neutral groups will get a Shura decision when and if they become targets for kidnapping or suicide attack or when captured. Of course if you are captured it might be several weeks to a month before they decide on the Shura decision. If you are captured by crooks or low lifes-money will be in question. If you are stuck in a riot after an idiot burns the Holy Koran, well nothing is going to save you.

Basically the current rule of thumb should be. If you do not have 5 or more years here, are not invited by Afghans(who are responsible for you) or the Afghan Government(who will protect you) or ISAF (who will defend you) -You are fair game for death or injury when your feet touch down at Kabul International.

This is a war. Unexperienced do gooders can get killed if captured or attacked by Insurgent units. They are fighting for keeps and a few dead foreigners with Master Degrees in Public Policy will not make a difference to them at all. Most Aid workers are more dangerous to themselves than anyone realizes. They should go home.

I was told last night by a young fellow, and it made good sense…”You all should have expected this, we will never compromise our Religion for anything. The Koran is from God and must be treated as such.” This is what I have heard in many forms for many years. Yes, we should have expected it.

Pete April 5, 2011 at 7:34 am

Steve, I would have thought 10 years in the country would have given you a more complex insight than your simplistic generalisations. And if this is truly the only impression you have gained, then talk to more Afghans.

Steve Magribi April 5, 2011 at 10:11 am

Sitting here talking to some friends about our departure from Jalalabad in 1996-what complex insights would you like from us next time?

They laughed at your comment.

Not sure what you are looking for but do please let us know so we can read your PHD concept. Sometimes simple is more than simple, it is just how things are.

Don Anderson April 5, 2011 at 10:50 am

Don’t worry Steve, it is only those who need to justify all that they know that don’t realize that things in Afghanistan are not as complex as people want to make them.

I agree with your comments fully….since we only talk to Afghans, we should find some foreigners to talk to so we can understand what they want to hear better. No?

Won’t be seeing Petey old boy without his IPAD and body armor anytime soon with an attitude like that. Hope he survives, or probably off the rock by now. It is safer that way.

OK off to my simple meal with non complex enough Afghans. I guess after ten years here we are not smart enough for some people with less time in country. They must be feeding him one good line after another good line. I am laughing too.

jonathan rose April 3, 2011 at 11:20 am

Just wondering how you feel about @joshuafoust’s statement on Twitter on Friday night:

Oh no, white people got killed at the UN! This is an EMERGENCY, y’all

Wow!!! So that’s how he really feels about the UN and aid workers! (Not to mention, most of the dead were brown.) Considering his reaction to @nirrosen, seems like there should be some turnabout here

Joel Hafvenstein April 4, 2011 at 12:45 pm

My friend Josh may forgive me for saying that he’s not exactly famed for his sensitivity.

That said, I’m not going to roast him too hard for his initial impulse to sarcasm. I’ve had a similar knee-jerk reaction many times before. When a foreign civilian dies, the Western media reacts with big shock headlines and talk of watersheds; far worse crimes against Afghan civilians sink without a blip. When Westerners and Afghans die in the same incident, the Afghan casualties are lucky to get a name and be included in the headline number.

This was a genuinely shocking incident (though I don’t think it’s a watershed), deserving its shock headlines. But on first glance, I can see how it might have looked like yet another instance of the racism that bleeds into so much reportage of Afghan tragedies.

Ralph Lopez April 3, 2011 at 10:25 pm

Joel, good article. I am most interested in where perceptions of the National Solidarity Program stand, you say:

“When an aid program is seen as a way for the government to “score points” — for example, the National Solidarity Program — it is likely to draw insurgent fire, even if it’s popular at community level and implemented by an NGO that protests its neutrality.”

I thought the NSP projects were left pretty much alone by insurgents. I know it is under the MRRD, but are projects advertised as NSP really viewed as associated with Karzai? This would be a shame since it is one of the few programs with the capacity to do thousands of small projects. Where in your view should Congress be appropriating money do help Afghans do their own development (which result in jobs) without being viewed as part of the military occupation?

I was in-country a year or so ago and thought we could solve a big part of the problem just by hiring all those unemployed guys in Kabul who gather in the squares hoping for day work. It’s relatively secure, there is plenty to be done (rip out those open sewers for starters and start laying pipe for a real system) and the labor force is already lined up.

ralphlopez2002 at hotmail dot com

Joel Hafvenstein April 4, 2011 at 12:56 pm

Hey Ralph, things may have cooled down since I was there, but in 2008-09 NGOs were far more likely to be targeted for threats, arson, and full-on attacks by insurgents if they were managing an NSP project. NSP is broadly popular (last I checked) and across the country the government started using it as an example of “look what we’ve done for you.” That turned it into contested ground.

I’m generally pro-NSP — I never had the headache of trying to administer it — and certainly think it should keep getting funded. Answering how Congress should be spending its money… man, that’s a whole different post.

Scott Bohlinger April 4, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Excellent work and analysis, Joel!

Marco Leitão Silva April 10, 2011 at 6:56 am

Good morning, Joel!

Congratulations for your article: it raises some very interesting points, while shattering some of the myths that Western Media have created about aid work.

I’m bookmarking your article. Feel free to visit my blog and make any suggestions:


mohammed April 10, 2011 at 6:00 pm

what i dont see mentioned here is that many NGO’s and many staff of NGO’ are actually spies or CIA agents.
they use the cover of journalists, aid workers or “embassy staff” to legitimise their presence in Afghnaistan
another issue is that there are some NGO’s that are nothing more than christian missionary organisations- they want to “save” the afghans- they go into remote areas and try to fool simple farmers.
then there is the issue of the vast majority of the funds allocated for the Afghans not reaching them. Instead it goes towards salaries & living expenses of NGO staff.

there are many honest, sincere & hardworking NGO staff(u know who u are) & they often end up paying the price for the actions of others.

if all westerners left Afghanistan-troops n all, im sure the Taliban would do a much better job of rebuilding the country.
please dont lie that they dont want girls to get an education- mainstream media has said this somany times, people actually believe its true.
of course, u dont expect them to allow females to dress as prostitutes.
maybe thats your definition of democracy n freedom.
the only Afghans that DONT want the Taliban are the wealthy or those who wish to live like westerners.
for the vast majority of Afghans, Taliban rule would make no change in their daily lives.
zionist mainstream media selects the views of a few & portrays it as the opinion of the masses.

Adam April 10, 2011 at 7:29 pm

…DOn’t you want the millions of NGOs in PAkistan to leave first? Do you want Taliban in Pakistan? or only want to see ISI Haqqani Talibs and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan? Afghans say they want ISI/MI/Paki Armu of Pakistan, Revolutionary agents of Iran to leave Afghanistan permanently before America leaves? Even the nationalists among Afghan Taliban wants Pakistan to leave Afghanistan this time around, especially the ones stripped naked by ISI in front of American “spies”….Anyone who tries to make Afghans servants have only destroyed their empire, and we know Islamabad is no empire- it is only a matter of time when it is officially buried in the graveyard of empires..

mohammed April 11, 2011 at 4:18 am

many people in pakistan would welcome the taliban with open arms- again, zionist mainstream media selects the views of a chosen few & presents it to the gullible sheeple as the voice of the masses.

Adam April 11, 2011 at 10:01 am

So your Pakistan army is lying about the Taliban, and do not think we can fooled by the same zionist mainstream media of Pakistan. TTP have sworn allegiance to Afghan Taliban…they are the same, only addition is they are taking revenge for their losses..So why are people not accepting Taliban and following Pakistan Army’s direction for $. All your Paki generals and journalists say we want a weak gov’t in Afghanistan and Taliban whose Foreign policy we will control…Do not think Afghans are sheeps of Pakistan to be slaughtered, I agree American policy is flawed- mainly because our south asian client and bullwark Pakistan has been sucking the blood of Afghans and building the army’s greedy pockets and businesses.

Adam April 11, 2011 at 10:18 am

I hope you answer the questions above instead of point at yourself in the mirror.

mohammed April 11, 2011 at 4:17 am

here are the real reasons for the west to be involved/interested in that part of the world:
1. religious hatred
2. racist hatred
3. imperialist looting of natural resources and mineral wealth.
4. build permanent military bases near China & Russia- two major threats to US superiority.
5. drug lords (within and outside of intelligence services).
6. arms sales and other war profiteering.
7. loanshark capitalism – Jewish bankers of Europe & America.
8. empire building .. land acquisition
9. mercenaries attracted to violence & fat paychecks.
10. generals attracted to advancement in the ranks and becoming famous.
11. revenge for defeats suffered against the Afghans over the years.

Adam April 11, 2011 at 10:07 am

The same empire than has fathered Pakistan via our atheist agent and British lawyer Jinnah and nurtured former loyal British-Indian forces into the servant army to protect the interest of the Euro-US empire.

mohammed April 11, 2011 at 8:20 am

oh, before i forget, not everyone who is operating there has all of the above motives/reasons for their interest.
the term “Great Game” is quite apt as there are many players involved- each with their own angle.
sometimes they co-operate with other players out of conveniece
‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend”

Adam April 11, 2011 at 10:16 am

Like I said Pakistan carrying out the great game for others for a fee is perhaps the most unhumane…how many bank accounts can you fill using terror against civilians around the world, your PAkistan establishment can not cover the sun with two fingers, they have destroy any signs of hope in Afghanistan.

I did not hear one Pakistani protest when we had base close to peshawar until early 70s….where was your manhood and honor than, why are you against Afghanistan progress…killing teachers, engineers and Afghans who try to help their country.

I do not think a servant of an “empire” can dictate to any other, forget dictating to the independent minded Afghans.

mohammed April 11, 2011 at 8:22 am

i wonder what kind of people do this for a living? and how can they go back home & play “loving father & husband” to their families?
but what goes around comes around
you dont see afghans suffering from PTSD or commiting suicide

Adam April 11, 2011 at 10:03 am

I am sure the ISI sleeps well at night when it lured the Russians into Afghanistan with our funding of the terrorists in Waziristan in the 70s.

Previous post:

Next post: