Global Policy Forum

Afghanistan: NGOs Question New Government Directive on Armed Escorts

Integrated Regional Information Networks
August 2, 2007

Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior has ordered Afghan security forces not to allow foreign aid workers to travel outside Kabul without an armed escort, a government official told IRIN.

The directive has been issued as an extra security measure for international non-governmental organisation (NGO) staff involved in relief and development activities after a number of foreign aid workers were abducted by Taliban insurgents. On 19 July, 23 South Koreans who had come to Afghanistan for humanitarian assistance were kidnapped in the volatile Ghazni Province. On 17 July, two German and three Afghan aid workers were abducted in Wardak Province, near Kabul. So far, insurgents have killed two Koreans and threatened to kill all the abductees if the Afghan government does not release eight Taliban prisoners held in its jails. The Taliban have defied international calls for the safe release of the kidnapped people.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was among the first world leaders to call upon the kidnappers to immediately release abducted aid workers. Pope Benedict XVI, the head of Catholic Church, and many others have expressed similar demands.

New measures "disproportionate"

The Afghan security authorities have repeatedly requested all foreign aid workers to seek their advice before traveling beyond Kabul city. "We would not be facing the current crisis if the Koreans had informed us about their travel plans in advance," said Zemarai Bashari, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry (MoI). "We could have provided them with an armed escort for their protection," he added. The government of Afghanistan has expressed it readiness to provide armed police escorts for international staff who would like to drive out of the capital, officials said.

However, representatives of local and international NGOs have dubbed the government's extra security measures "disproportionate" and "counterproductive". "Armed escorts will undoubtedly make NGOs a legitimate target for anti-government elements," said Hashim Mayar, deputy director of ACBAR - a coordination umbrella for NGOs in Afghanistan. Mayar also said that in light of criticisms of widespread corruption and inefficiency within the MoI, many NGOs fear disclosing an advanced itinerary to the Afghan police, fearing it would increase possible risks.

Matt Waldman, an adviser to the UK charity Oxfam, said: "Whilst we understand the reasons for this move, we believe it is disproportionate and could have adverse consequences for development works, particularly in rural areas." The government's latest security measures do not apply to UN agencies working in Afghanistan, according to a UN spokesman.

Diminishing humanitarian space

Humanitarian and development actors have come under increasing attacks in the last two years in Afghanistan. Only in July, several incidents of kidnapping, attacks and threats against Afghans and foreign nationals working for relief and development organisations were reported. In the latest incidents on 31 July, a man working for the Danish aid and development organisation DACAAR died after receiving serious wounds in Badghis Province, western Afghanistan.

Many NGOs note a gradually deteriorating situation for humanitarian and neutral activities. In June, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Kabul told IRIN that humanitarian space was shrinking in post-Taliban Afghanistan due to a vivid radicalisation of views among warring parties.

There are also other aid workers with a slightly different opinion. "Because NGOs have increasingly taken part in development activities, human rights and democratisation activities - all repugnant to Taliban and al-Qaeda doctrine - they have been perceived by insurgents as collaborators with the government of Hamid Karzai and his Western supporters," remarked Mayar of ACBAR.

Korean aid workers told to leave

While multilateral efforts are ongoing to release kidnapped civilians from the Taliban's captivity, dozens of South Koreans working for several NGOs in Afghanistan have been told to immediately leave the host country, a Korean diplomat told IRIN in Kabul on 2 August. South Korea has spent about US$60 million on reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan since 2002 and pledged a further $20 million in February 2006, said the Korean diplomat who did not want to be named.

"It is sad to see people who came to help the people of Afghanistan are leaving the country because of security constraints," said Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). However, the spokesman said the evacuation of Korean aid workers would not affect the work of other NGOs and international organisations working in Afghanistan.

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