Worsening security squeezing Afghan aid work
by Bronwen Roberts
August 14, 2008
KABUL (AFP) – An attack that killed three female Western aid workers near Kabul highlights deteriorating security in Afghanistan with relief groups saying threats of murders and kidnappings are limiting their work.
Gunmen on Wednesday pumped bullets into a marked vehicle of the International Rescue Committee, killing the women — a British-Canadian, a Canadian and a Trinidadian-American — and their Afghan driver.
It was the deadliest attack on aid workers in years and comes after non-government groups raised the alarm about security, with 19 workers killed in the first seven months of the year — more than for the whole of 2007.
“For anti-government elements we are soft targets,” said Anja de Beer, director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief, the umbrella group of NGOs, referring to Taliban and other extremists.
Soaring crime presents another threat, contributing to what an ACBAR report said this month was a 50 percent spike in violent incidents this year over last with rough estimates of 1,000 civilians killed so far.
“The criminals know there is something to gain, for example, kidnapping for ransom,” de Beer told AFP.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s murders about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Kabul, in Logar province, claiming it had attacked international soldiers who included women.
The extremist threat is greatest in the insurgency-hit south and southeast, where most groups had pulled out their expatriate staff or only sent them down for short missions, said de Beer.
“There is a shrinking area of intervention,” de Beer said.
No-go areas are spreading — including some areas just outside the capital — with the main road between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar off-limits to most expatriates.
It was on this road that a French businessman was kidnapped on May 29, to be released three weeks later.
Several Afghans have also been pulled off the road by Taliban, who have accused them of “spying” for Western interests, and shot or beheaded them.
Afghans working with non-government groups try to hide their links with internationals when they move outside of urban centres, shunning four-wheel drive vehicles and Western clothing.
“Local staff travel in ordinary cars,” de Beer said. “They try not to carry papers and pens — if you are literate, you must work with an NGO.”
Local employees of the Afghan Health and Development Services keep a low profile in volatile areas, Kandahar provincial manager Mohammad Kabir told AFP.
“For example, they don’t take our own cars. They travel in ordinary cars, looking like ordinary people,” he said.
But still the group has had 25 staffers kidnapped this year and last, although they were freed with the help of tribal elders, and seven vehicles taken, most often after abductions.
Several Afghan staff members had been killed in various incidents, he said.
“Security problems means that we can’t expand our activities,” Kabir said.
In the west, the Spanish-funded Association for Cooperation with Afghanistan, said it did not move beyond 10 kilometres (six miles) outside of the city of Herat.
“There have not been any attacks on our staff but we feel that if we go outside the city, we might be attacked by Taliban, kidnappers or other armed groups,” said the group’s regional head Mohammad Asghar Yawar.
Wednesday’s killings led the International Rescue Committee, which works with refugees, children and education, to suspend its activities.
Insecurity has also hampered UN-sponsored polio vaccination programmes and de Beer said it could affect efforts to put food supplies in place ahead of winter with drought and price hikes already hurting the poorest.
“Ultimately violence against those who are trying to help Afghans rebuild their lives will only caused greater suffering for the Afghan people,” a senior foreign aid worker said of the International Rescue Committee murders.