Providing Aid a Dangerous Proposition

The car bomb attack in Kabul has brought into dramatic focus the need for aid agencies to reassess their security plans.

Providing Aid a Dangerous Proposition

The car bomb attack in Kabul has brought into dramatic focus the need for aid agencies to reassess their security plans.

Friday, 1 September, 2006

The attack on the office of an American private security firm late last month that left as many as 10 dead, including three Americans, should serve as a reminder that nearly three years after the overthrow of the Taleban, basic levels of security have yet to be achieved in this country.

In fact, with the presidential election only a little more than a month away, it appears that Afghanistan is becoming an increasingly dangerous place, especially for international organisations.

The choice of DynCorp as a target is significant. The high-profile firm not only is engaged in training the local police but also provides the security detail for President Hamed Karzai. It indicated that the attackers felt confident enough to go after a heavily guarded facility, protected by armed guards who use the most modern of equipment.

It also shows that those responsible for the bombing are intent on disrupting any effort to aid or reconstruct the country.

By launching an attack in the capital, the insurgents have demonstrated that the conditions that exist in the rest of the country apply here too. Even the Afghan government admits that much of the country outside Kabul is ungovernable.

Relief agencies are unable to operate in vast portions of the country. Some, like Medecins Sans Frontieres, have completely withdrawn from the country because of the growing level of violence. Much of the southern, southeastern and eastern portions of the country have been designated as highest-risk areas by the United Nations.

On a daily basis, the Afghan NGO Security Office, ANSO, receives information concerning threats and assaults against aid workers, ranging from small but effective attacks conducted by small units to larger forces using a host of guerrilla-type tactics, to major rocket attacks to sieges of entire towns.

The government in Kabul is unable to provide security in many areas of the country. In fact, in many regions, there is little or no government presence on the ground.

Meanwhile, the Coalition regularly claims success in providing security or rooting out suspected al-Qaeda or Taleban forces. But so far, this success has not translated into reducing the number of attacks on international workers or stemming the flow of fighters and weapons into the country.

So far, the international security effort must be considered a failure. This failure must be attributed either to an inadequate appreciation of what it would take to create a safe and secure environment in the country, or to a lack of resources for those responsible for providing security to carry out their missions.

The fact that efforts to combine security and reconstruction efforts have not worked should not come as a surprise. Security operations and reconstruction efforts are mutually antagonistic, and reconstruction is best reserved for a time when adequate security has been established.

Aid agencies cannot gain access to many areas where reconstruction is needed. Provincial Reconstruction Teams, PRTs, groups of international soldiers and civilians that operate both as a security force and reconstruction team, have been unable to operate in some areas of the country, even with the threat of firepower.

In fact, the creation of PRTs has severely compromised the position of non-governmental organisations in some areas, with many Afghans no longer willing to believe that such aid agencies are truly neutral.

ANSO HAD anticipated that the security situation in the capital would deteriorate in the short-term. As the seat of government, national development and the international community, Kabul is a prime target.

The failure to acknowledge just how dangerous the security situation is, for both Afghans and internationals, has led many NGOs to put their personnel at risk.

The recent decision by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe to withdraw from monitoring the upcoming presidential elections indicates that they may believe that such a mission would entail an unacceptable level of risk for their staff.

Most aid agencies know of the complexities of their operational environment and of the protocol required to work in a safer manner. But there are many that simply don’t appreciate the circumstances they may confront in Afghanistan.

The evidence on the ground - unprecedented, murderous attacks on the aid community - has suggested that reconstruction projects in many areas of where insurgency is growing are risky at best.

The traditional pillars of humanitarian security are acceptance, protection and deterrence. Acceptance remains the primary defence against insecurity. As the recent violence shows, without this acceptance, no amount of armed guards or secured compounds will be adequate to keep aid workers safe.

In the wake of last month’s bombing, NGOs operating here now have a difficult choice to make: Either accept the risks or avoid all potentially dangerous situations. Some have been considering these options for a long time. For others, the bombing in Kabul served as an alarming wake-up call.

Whatever they have decided, humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan need to appreciate that the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Nick Downie is Project Coordinator with the Afghan NGO Security Office, ANSO.

ANSO Programme Officer Melissa Ong also contributed to this piece.

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