KABUL (Reuters) – Foreign humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan have restricted staff movements and said on Thursday they are considering suspending operations in some areas after suspected Taliban insurgents killed three women aid workers.
Rising violence has already forced aid agencies to cut back their humanitarian work in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, which is struggling to cope with high food prices and drought as well as the Taliban insurgency.
The three women worked for U.S.-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) and were shot dead in a car chase on Wednesday as they were traveling through Logar, until this year a relatively peaceful province just south of the capital, Kabul.
The IRC focuses on providing shelter, water and sanitation to refugees returning to Afghanistan, but has now suspended all its humanitarian aid programs in the country indefinitely.
Some NGOs have been active at some level in Afghanistan for up to 30 years, throughout the Soviet occupation, civil war and Taliban rule, and are unlikely to pull out of the country.
“But what will happen if these kinds of acts continue is that NGOs will be forced to downscale … reduce the scope of their activities and ultimately the only people who will suffer are the Afghans who rely on the support the NGOs are providing,” said a senior Western aid worker who declined to be named.
Afghanistan has been torn apart by nearly 30 years of war, turning an already impoverished nation into one of the very poorest in the world. Life expectancy at birth is just 44 and nearly one in five children die before their fifth birthday.
The pro-Western Afghan government, backed by some 70,000 foreign troops, is struggling to put down a deepening Taliban insurgency more than six years after U.S.-led and Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban following the September 11, 2001, attacks.
A group of some 100 aid agencies active in Afghanistan already complained this month that rising violence had forced them to scale back their work and they appealed to all sides in the conflict to respect their neutrality.
Some 20 Afghan NGO workers have been killed so far this year, but the killing of the three women from the IRC was the deadliest attack on foreign aid workers in recent years.
While much of southern Afghanistan, such as the highly volatile provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, have been largely off limits to aid workers for some time, NGOs say growing insecurity immediately south of Kabul was now threatening their work.
The United Nations special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, is to meet international aid agencies later on Thursday “to discuss their concerns and to offer support to ensure the continuation of programs and projects so desperately needed by so many vulnerable communities,” said U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique.
Aid agencies active in Logar province, an hour’s drive south of Kabul, said they had restricted staff movements in the province while an investigation into the deaths was underway and were reviewing whether it was safe to continue operations there.
“I think there needs to be an understanding by insurgent groups that NGOs are not part of this conflict, that we are here to provide support for the Afghan people … that many depend on humanitarian supplies and that this kind of act jeopardizes the work of aid agencies throughout the country,” the senior Western aid worker said.