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Analysis: Rising threat to aid agencies in Afghanistan

NGO officials dispute allegations that they pay off the Taliban, claim Pentagon efforts to enlist their help place them in peril.

Afghan policemen keep watch next to a damaged vehicle belonging to a U.S. aid organization after a bomb blast in Kunduz on June 18, 2009. Four Afghan employees working for a U.S. aid organization were wounded when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in the northern city of Kunduz, detective police officer Abdul Rahman Aqtaash said. (Wahdat/Reuters)

GENEVA, Switzerland — International aid and humanitarian organizations are increasingly under the threat of attack in Afghanistan and are struggling to find ways to operate safely in areas where the U.S. and the Taliban are at war.

Amid concerns for security, the United States Agency for International Development has opened an investigation into claims highlighted in a GlobalPost special report that some international contractors may be involved in payments — through local Afghan subcontractors — that end up in the hands of the Taliban in exchange for protection in Taliban-controlled areas.

GlobalPost has been in contact with several senior officials at aid agencies in Kabul and in Geneva about the unique dangers and challenges these organizations face in operating amid conflict.

The officials agreed that no established NGO would ever knowingly pay a local insurgency, such as the Taliban, for safe passage for their staff because it is a dangerous and slippery slope, and one that could ultimately imperil their operations more.

Given accounting requirements, the officials say it is impossible that the Taliban could be paid directly even by subcontractors. But they say it is harder, perhaps even impossible, to know if local subcontractors in a Taliban-controlled community may be making payments or delivering some form of aid indirectly to the Taliban at some point down the line.

It is all part of a difficult and dangerous terrain that NGOs traverse all over the world in areas of conflict.

These aid organizations also highlighted what they say is a problematic effort by the Pentagon to help address security concerns by essentially enlisting the aid agencies in fighting the war in Afghanistan. That, they say, will place them in greater peril, not less. A three-hour meeting here for U.N. aid agencies, NGOs and an assortment of diplomats in room XI of the Palais des Nations, the U.N.’s headquarters in Europe, last week, rolled out a progress update and flashy marketing pitch for an Afghan war “information and knowledge sharing” platform, called the Civil-Military Fusion Centre.

The basic idea of the center, which has been germinating for nearly two years, is to establish a mechanism that will let military planners tap the vast reservoir of information that NGOs and aid organizations have on the ground. Of course, the exchange also promises to provide the NGOs with access to what the military knows. (The center’s web portal is Civil Military Overview.)

What has particularly upset humanitarian organizations is the suggestion made during the presentation that several hundred NGOs are already “users” of the centre’s information and that they therefore support the idea by implication. The claim is apparently based on a mailing list for a newsletter, which the center put together without first asking the NGOs if they actually wanted to participate. Most don’t.
“The simple fact that your name is on their list is being used to claim that you support the project,” Laurent Saillard, director of Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), told Global Post in a phone interview from Kabul. Saillard said he plans to ask to be dropped from the distribution list.

“If the military wants to share information,” he said, ”they can declassify it so that everyone can see it. We don’t want to receive information that will include us in a military dynamic.”