Analysis: Rising threat to aid agencies in Afghanistan

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.”

Saillard isn’t the only one.

“The fact that they are calling it civil-military fusion says it all,” Ashley Jackson, Oxfam’s head of communications in Kabul, said in a phone interview. “It creates confusion and it blurs the lines. It is very dangerous, and it undermines both our impartiality and our ability to work in these areas.”
“Even the term itself is a problem,” said Jonathan Mitchell, emergency response director for NGO Care International’s secretariat in Geneva. “The word 'fusion' implies a connection between humanitarianism and the military. The suggestion that we would be involved in sharing information through some sort of database that is managed by the military goes against all concepts of maintaining a clear distinction between humanitarian actors and the military.” The NGO concern is that the soldier who helps a villager as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), may come back shooting tomorrow. To a villager, already at the mercy of forces beyond his control, blurring the lines between aid and combat can make everyone, including aid workers, look like the enemy — and that makes life difficult, if not dangerous, for humanitarians.

A report by the U.N. last year documented a dramatic increase in the killing and abduction of aid workers in Afghanistan

The term “fusion centre” originally referred to anti-terrorism response and prevention centers set up by U.S. Homeland Security and the Justice Department from 2003 to 2007, as part of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).

The goal of those centers was to provide a better way of sharing information between intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Eventually, the private sector was roped in and AT&T, Sprint, MCI and Verizon were encouraged to provide intelligence information on Americans as well as foreign suspects. At least 72 U.S.-based fusion centers are currently recognized by Homeland Security.  

The Civil-Military Fusion Centre is currently being sold as a NATO initiative, but the headquarters is in Norfolk, Va., and the officer assigned to present the idea in Geneva was a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. No one seriously questions the fact that Washington is calling the shots on this one, and in fact, a number of people attending the briefing saw it as an extension of Hillary Clinton’s goal of creating a synergy between the three D's — Diplomacy Development and Defense.

That may make sense from Washington’s perspective, but from the NGO’s viewpoint the program effectively turns aid workers into amateur intelligence agents and bolsters the Taliban’s rationale for kidnapping and assassination, a point that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Pentagon, or if it did, no one seems to have really cared.

An initial red flag was waved when Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s chief trouble shooter in Afghanistan, casually remarked last April that 90 percent of what the U.S. actually knows about Afghanistan comes from aid agencies and humanitarian groups.

Holbrooke’s remarks reinforced the Taliban’s contention that humanitarian workers are really an arm of the war effort against them and thus legitimate targets. The fact that the Pentagon is still pushing the center despite the furor that surrounded Holbrooke’s remarks is added proof that Washington still lacks a firm grasp of Afghan thinking on the ground.

NGOs feel especially vulnerable because the influence of armed insurgent groups is clearly growing and simply being able to function in many of these areas often requires delicate negotiations.
None of the NGOs or aid organizations will pay for protection, but it is getting harder to accomplish anything outside of Kabul without running into the Taliban. Lex Kassenberg, Care’s country director in Afghanistan, said in a phone interview from Kabul that contacts with the Taliban are strictly forbidden.

“I know that Care doesn’t have the money to pay anyone,” Kassenberg said, but he adds that when you are providing aid to a community, it is not always possible to know who might be a Taliban supporter.

 “We need to be able to work with local communities in a country like Afghanistan based on the community’s needs,” said Care’s Jonathan Mitchell. “We can’t always know the political affiliation of all the members of the community, and in fact, it is not our business to know that.”

Laurent Saillard said that the idea of paying for protection is crazy. “If you start doing that, it is the beginning of the end. It never stops, and very quickly, you are out of the game.” But talking with possible Taliban supporters or any of the myriad armed insurgent groups springing up across the country is another matter. “We can’t avoid it,” said Saillard. “Otherwise our people in the field would be shot, or kidnapped. In any other conflict we talk to all sides. Why should we make an exception in Afghanistan? If we want to reach out, we have no choice but to talk and negotiate access and security of our teams. That is just the way it is.”

Saillard co-chairs the civil-military working group with the Kabul representative of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and he suggests that the U.N. is clearly better placed than NATO to provide coordination that is politically neutral. With European allied support for the Afghan war effort beginning to waver, and serious questions being raised about the lack of achievable goals, the contacts that the NGOs and humanitarian agencies maintain with local populations may provide an invaluable resource when it comes to eventually negotiating a political solution. For the moment, keeping that option open means maintaining as great a distance from the military as possible.