Taliban Train Sights on Aid Groups, an Ominous Turn in Afghanistan

Author : Mircea Birca | Wednesday, May 15, 2019
Posted in category Afghanistan, Eurasia, South East Asia
Comments Off on Taliban Train Sights on Aid Groups, an Ominous Turn in Afghanistan

A Taliban attack on two aid organizations last week, the deadliest episode in a recent surge of violence against humanitarian workers in Afghanistan, is a signal to many that as peace talks falter, the insurgents are lashing out against so-called soft targets.

Wednesday’s attack killed three workers for CARE, the American aid group, and at least six others, most of them civilians. Aid workers said the true death toll was 13. In either case, it was the single biggest loss of life among the country’s 2,000 nongovernmental organizations in over a year.

The bombing, which struck CARE and Counterpart International offices, came as the sixth round of peace negotiations between the Taliban and Americans limped to an end in Qatar. The Afghan government was excluded from the talks, which ended after seven fitful days with a sense of fading optimism.

The Taliban vowed that the assault on the aid groups would not be their last.

Even before the attack, casualties among aid workers had started to rise after several years of decline. Through April, five aid workers had been killed, 12 injured and 18 abducted this year in Afghanistan, according to the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator, Toby Lanzer.

Also worrisome for humanitarian groups is the Taliban’s continued refusal to give the International Committee of the Red Cross, by far the biggest aid organization in the country, safe passage through areas they control.

In April, the insurgents issued a statement saying that the Red Cross, which has worked on both sides of the conflict’s front lines, and the World Health Organization would be barred from Taliban areas because of what they called “suspicious” activities.

The Red Cross operates ambulance services, orthopedic clinics, hospitals, prison visitations and other activities benefiting all sides in Afghanistan. The World Health Organization carries out polio vaccinations; some Taliban-dominated areas are among the few places in the world where the disease has not been wiped out.

Last Monday, the Red Cross sent its vice president, Gilles Carbonnier, to meet with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on the sidelines of peace talks with the Americans, but there was no apparent breakthrough. A Taliban statement expressed the obvious: “Both sides stressed that Afghanistan needs a great deal of humanitarian aid and attention.”

Roya Musawi, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Afghanistan, said, “We are in dialogue about resumption of our activities for the people affected.”

The peace talks in Qatar between the Taliban and the Americans proved briefer than earlier efforts, ending with little apparent progress.

“The current pace of talks isn’t sufficient when so much conflict rages and innocent people die,” the American negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad said Thursday in a Twitter post.

In attacking the headquarters of Counterpart International, an American organization, in Kabul, Afghanistan, the day before, the insurgents accused it of engaging in anti-Islamic activity. Counterpart, which receives funding from the United States Agency for International Development, is one of numerous nongovernmental organizations that provide development services to governments by contract.

As it happened, no one from Counterpart was killed. Its staff members had taken refuge in armored safe rooms. But across the street at the offices of CARE, which has operated in Afghanistan since 1966, three employees were among the dead.

The Taliban immediately doubled down.

“The Kabul attack on Counterpart is not the last attack,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said on Twitter.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Mujahid denied that any of the dead were civilians and said that if anyone from CARE had been killed, it was accidental.

“In the attack, many foreigners and their slaves were killed,” Mr. Mujahid said. “In fact, they did not allow reporters to go to the scene and report the facts.”

In fact, Afghan and foreign journalists did go to the scene, and none of the dead were foreigners. Only one of those killed was from the Afghan security forces, a member of an elite police rapid response unit, and aid workers in the area identified all of the others as civilians.

The insurgents’ statement also complained that Counterpart’s mixing of men and women in its projects had “resulted in rampant moral corruption,” raising another concern for aid groups. Such mixing is commonplace in aid organizations, especially those funded by the international community.

A day after the attack in Kabul, the Taliban closed a dozen clinics run by an Afghan aid group, Ahead, in Nuristan Province, according to Zakiullah Storay, the head of the provincial health department.

The year 2013 saw a high point in attacks on aid workers, both worldwide and in Afghanistan, according to Aidworkersecurity.org, a database funded by U.S.A.I.D. The United Nations said there were 237 attacks on Afghan aid workers in 2013 through November, with 36 killed. Many of those deaths were in remote rural areas and were attributed to cross-fire and accidents.

Then in January 2014, insurgents struck Taverna du Liban, a Kabul cafe popular with foreigners, killing 21 people of 10 nationalities, many of them diplomats and aid workers. The attack led to the departure of some aid groups, and a widespread shift to using Afghan citizens in projects rather than foreigners.

The number of aid groups working in the field in Afghanistan declined to 159 last year, from 223 in 2013, according to United Nations data. In the intervening years, attacks steadily decreased after relief groups took greater precautions and insurgents pledged not to attack them.

Still, Afghanistan remained one of the three most dangerous countries for aid workers, according to the United Nations.

Attacks on aid workers began increasing again last year, a trend noted at the time by Mr. Lanzer, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator. On Saturday, Mr. Lanzer said that pattern had continued.

“I’m as concerned today, if not more so, than I was in August of last year,” he said.

It was unclear whether the increase was the result of a shift of Taliban tactics, or just the greatly increased tempo of the war this year, as both sides pushed to improve their positions at the negotiating table.

Mr. Lanzer said he had often spoken to Taliban officials about the protection of humanitarian workers.

“Consistently in all my conversations they have said aid organizations will not be targeted,” he said. “So I think what happened this week is of particular concern. But I would also add that any attack by any parties to the conflict that results in civilian casualties cannot be justified.”

An official at one relief organization, who said he was not permitted to speak publicly about the attack, said that most groups still believed they would not be targeted. This aid worker cited Counterpart’s involvement in political activities like Afghan elections as the reason last week’s attack may have been distinct.

The aid group Oxfam was among several that refused to make a distinction between their work and that of Counterpart.

“We strongly denounce any attack on NGOs serving Afghans, as we see this as an attack on Afghans themselves,” its country director, Ruby Ajanee, said.

So far, Mr. Lanzer said, there has been no sign of aid workers’ leaving Afghanistan or cutting back on their activities.

“My ethos as humanitarian coordinator is that nongovernment and U.N. agencies are here as professionals and we will stay to continue to protect and deliver the aid that the people of this country require,” he said.

Fiona Gall, head of Acbar, an organization that represents aid groups in Afghanistan, said, “Giving aid is a neutral act.”

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