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.