In Afghanistan, blurred lines cost lives
By Aunohita Mojumdar
Asia Times Online / August 20, 2008
KABUL – Afghanistan’s civilian and military actors, both national and international, have signed a new set of guidelines that call for maintaining a clear distinction between the role and functions of humanitarian agencies and the military, an agreement that may well be an unprecedented step in the history of civil-military relations in conflict situations.
The move comes at a time when many humanitarian and aid agencies are feeling the pressure of shrinking access to the Afghan population, as larger and larger areas of the country become off limits. Recent months have seen a spurt in direct and deliberate attacks on humanitarian aid workers, many of whom feel their distinct and neutral identity in the conflict has been
compromised by the blurring of roles between the military and the civilian components of assistance to Afghanistan.
On August 12, four non-governmental organization (NGO) employees, including three internationals, all of them women, were killed in a brutal ambush in the province of Logar, south of Kabul. The deaths added to a steadily rising toll of NGO workers this year, most of them Afghans.
This month the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), the umbrella organization for over 100 NGOs, drew attention to the increased threat to aid organizations, pointing out that this year alone there had been over 84 incidents, including 21 in June, more than any other month in the past six years.
“The blurring of lines between the military/political and the humanitarian community is a real not an imaginary concern,” said Ingrid Macdonald, the regional protection and advocacy advisor for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “We are all concerned that this is having an impact and many NGOs are now traveling in unmarked cars trying to look as much like the normal population as possible. Earlier NGO workers were attacked when they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now we are being targeted.”
Macdonald’s argument is underlined by ongoing discussion around the Logar killings, which are being partly attributed to the fact that the International Red Cross (IRC) employees were travelling in a vehicle with the IRC logo marked clearly on it.
The civil-military guidelines, which have not attracted much notice until now, were agreed on at the end of protracted negotiations within a civil military working group that had representatives of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), ACBAR, individual NGOs, embassies of major donor countries, the government of Afghanistan as well as representatives of the US led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
While OEF demurred from signing on, stating that it was not routinely involved in development projects and therefore not required to approve this guideline, ISAF forces have adopted them with the new NATO commander General David McKiernan ordering all commanders to implement them.
Clearly thrilled at having brought the military on board, an NGO employee involved in the drafting of the guidelines, described them as unprecedented, saying “nowhere else in the world has such a step being taken”.
“The guidelines will prevent a blurring of the lines between the role of the military and humanitarian actors, preventing humanitarian space from being squeezed further,” said Aleem Siddique, the spokesperson of UNAMA. “Recognizing the distinct role that we have to play will be a vital component of protecting our impartiality and opening up humanitarian space for us.”
The guidelines purport to “establish principles and practices for constructive civilian-military relations, and for effective coordination, which is critical for achieving security and stability in Afghanistan” and are “intended to support the development of a relationship between military and humanitarian actors in which differences are recognized and respected”.
The principles on which the guidelines are based include observance of international law and human rights, respect for the neutrality and independence of humanitarian actors, emphasizing the security role of the military, reporting violations of human rights and stressing the need for respect and protection of women.
The guidelines state that “maintaining a clear distinction between the role and function of humanitarian actors from that of the military is a determining factor in creating an operating environment in which humanitarian organizations can discharge their responsibilities both effectively and safely” and that “sustained humanitarian access to the affected population may be ensured when it is independent of military and political action”.
In defining the role of the military, the guidelines state that “the overall humanitarian assistance effort in Afghanistan is best served through a division of responsibilities: government and humanitarian actors have the primary role of providing humanitarian assistance, and the military is primarily responsible for providing security, and if necessary, basic infrastructure and urgent reconstruction assistance limited to gap-filling measures until civilian organizations are able to takeover.”
However, the guidelines also recognize the ongoing role of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams or PRTs, units set up by NATO that combine military and reconstruction tasks. While emphasizing that the mandate of the PRTs does not refer to humanitarian activities, they lay out the best practices for the PRT in the area of reconstruction “given the significant involvement of PRTs in civilian affairs, and in civil-military liaison”, urging the PRTs to follow Afghan national priorities and try and ensure local ownership of projects.
Macdonald feels that while acceptance of the guidelines is an “important step in the right direction”, the “real test will be how well they are implemented on the ground, for example the PRTs and military actors ceasing the use of emergency relief for political and military objectives which undermines the perceptions of NGOs being neutral”.
She expressed the opinion of a large section of the NGO community by saying: “Many Afghans want security. There is no evidence that PRTs engaging in relief or development activities is creating security. Why can’t the PRTs and military stick to what they do best, security – and we’ll stick to what we do best? PRTs are even engaging in basic service provision in areas where NGOs and government are already working – at a minimum, if NGOs and government can operate, then there is certainly no need for the PRTs to be doing this.”
An NGO employee involved with the negotiation said the guidelines were not meant to “make a doctrinaire point or emphasize a principle” but to make a difference by recognizing the reality on the ground, ie the involvement of PRTs in reconstruction. By emphasizing the primary mandate of the military, it was hoped that the guidelines would move the PRTs towards a process of transition that would lay emphasis on building civilian mechanisms and processes. “This document is not perfect and it is not meant to state what the military can or cannot do. Everyone has had to make compromises.”
While the work on the guidelines was initiated in 2007, discomfort over the blurring of civilian and military functions goes much further back. In the complex situation left behind following the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, multiple agendas and multiples actors led to an emphasis on an integrated approach, emphasizing the apparent joint goals and responsibilities of the international community as a whole.
With most of the international community presenting an upbeat picture of the apparent success in quick implementation of the Bonn roadmap, it was argued that development and security were spreading to most areas of the country and the remaining pockets could be fast tracked using a civil-military combination that would bring development to areas that remained insecure. In 2003, there was the setting up of the first PRT that would carry out reconstruction under the safeguard of a military encampment, arguably in areas where the NGOs still couldn’t work.
In the triumphant rhetoric that held sway then, dissonant voices were few and quickly dismissed as originating from “tree-huggers” or pessimists. However, as NATO expanded, it not only used the PRT model for its expansion throughout the country, but the change from a preponderance on the “war against terror” to securing the country, revealed an insurgency growing in strength. Despite this there was no rethinking of the PRT model, but rather increasing reliance on the PRTs for delivering aid to more and more areas.
The military began viewing it as a means of winning local support using reconstruction and aid delivery as an ameliorative for their military operations. Individual donors nations, keen on seeing their troops fare well, chose to spend most of their money on provinces where there troops were stationed, a substantive portion of it through the PRTs. “Emergency and development aid is being used as a military and political incentive,” said Macdonald. “This confuses peoples’ perceptions of who we are, what we do and why we are doing it. We deliver aid based on the needs of the population and to those who are most vulnerable – not based on politics or military aims.”
Instead, the past two years have seen the military therefore taking on more and more reconstruction work even as the escalating insurgency has resulted in harsher military operations, a combination that an increasing number of aid agencies feel challenges their own neutrality and threatens their security.
Weeks before the attack on the IRC workers, a group of NGOs including the IRC met the visiting UN emergency relief coordinator John Holmes to express concern over the blurring of lines, calling on the UN to speak out on the “need for clear separation between the military and the civilian actors, necessary to enable aid agencies to assist people in need”.
The “international military actors’ increased involvement in relief and reconstruction is further complicating the operational environment for NGOs, particularly in terms of security”, the aid agencies argued, adding that this forced a closer relationship between civil and military actors. Being perceived as an agent for any armed party “is a clear threat to our security”, the Mercy Corps head, Nigel Pont said at the time.
The NGOs also called for an independent UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), an office that does not exist in Afghanistan under the integrated mission approach which has, instead, a small humanitarian unit. The UN, following an internal tussle, decided against a separate OCHA, but agreed to strengthen the humanitarian affairs unit.
“Humanitarian space in Afghanistan has been compromised by the military and private sector companies trying to do the same work as long-term humanitarian workers. Some of them have very little, if any, humanitarian experience, yet they think they can just turn up and do what we do, just as well,” said Macdonald.
“The military should not be in the business of providing water and sanitation, distribution of food and non food items, nutrition programs, health clinics and programs, building schools and education programs. The principle is called ‘last resort’ – when the military steps in when no one else can do it to provide life saving assistance – not for some political or military purpose. But in large parts of Afghanistan, the military is stepping in where other actors are already doing it.”
During his visit Holmes emphasized the importance of maintaining distinct roles for the military and the humanitarian community, saying “I think it is very important that PRTs do not involve themselves in humanitarian assistance unless there is absolutely no other alternative for security reasons. I also think it is very important that the PRTs do not describe what they are generally doing as humanitarian.”
Since then, according to the publicity press releases issued by ISAF press office, NATO soldiers have delivered computers to a children’s hospital, conducted a carpentry course, inaugurated four new wells constructed as part of an agriculture project, conducted a plumbing course, guarded pistachio forests, installed a water purification process, taught farmers how to dry their fruit produce, provided material for schools and aid for a refugee camp, among other works that include reconstruction, development and delivery of humanitarian aid. Arguably much of this was not an emergency and not based on the principle of “last resort”.
As the guidelines are circulated and implemented more widely, the next few months will make it clear whether there is an actual impetus behind this agreement, or whether, like the hundreds of documents produced by the international community on Afghanistan, this is one of the many that will gather dust in academic archives.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who is currently based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for 16 years and has covered the Kashmir conflict and post-conflict situation in Punjab extensively.