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AFGHANISTAN: NGOs vulnerable to criminal violence and insurgency

KABUL, 7 November 2007 (IRIN) - Civilians working for NGOs in Afghanistan say their work is being constrained by insecurity as criminal groups and Taliban insurgents target aid workers.

Ahmad Shah Shierzai quit his job as a doctor with a local NGO as soon as he was released by Taliban insurgents on 20 October in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan. He and two others, who had been working at a district medical facility on 16 October, were abducted outside Kandahar city by armed men linked to Taliban rebels.

"We implored the Taliban that we are only health workers and that we only wanted to help destitute patients," he said. "They wanted to kill us because they said anyone working for the government of Hamid Karzai and foreign organisations deserved death," Shierzai added.

Only mediation by tribal elders and a hefty sum paid by Shierzai's family led to his safe release, he told IRIN.

Before letting him go, the Taliban forced him take an oath. "I swore that I would no longer work for the government and foreign NGOs," he said.

Unprecedented attacks

Since January 2007, 106 crime and conflict-related security incidents have involved NGOs across the country, the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) reported in October.

Anja de Beer, director of the NGO umbrella organisation ACBAR, says NGOs have been attacked by criminal groups as well as by anti-government forces.

Although Taliban insurgents have been involved in most reported security incidents against NGOs, ANSO figures show that criminal activities - mostly with economic motivation - have increasingly affected NGOs even in the relatively peaceful north and northeastern parts of the country.

Due to weak law enforcement, criminal groups allegedly involved in attacks and security incidents against NGOs often remain beyond the rule of law and prosecution.

"Criminal impunity in the north and northeastern provinces is an equal threat to NGOs as is insurgency in the south and southeast," Nic Lee, director of ANSO, told IRIN in the capital, Kabul, on 7 November.

Abductions

According to Lee, in almost all armed looting and robbery incidents affecting NGO convoys and facilities, shooting and abduction of NGO workers had been rare. This year, however, that trend has changed significantly.

"Opportunistic abductions have become more popular," said Lee. "Criminal groups have increasingly engaged in economically motivated abductions of NGO workers."

Anti-government forces have abducted more than 60 NGO workers compared with 20 by criminal gangs so far in 2007, according to ANSO.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that between January and September 2007 seven international and 34 Afghan aid workers were killed after being abducted by unidentified men.

NGO security

Many aid agencies operating in Afghanistan rely on communities and non-military and non-government procedures for their security and protection.

"We believe acceptance by communities is our form of security," said De Beer of ACBAR.

Most NGOs have repeatedly resisted the offer of armed escorts by Afghan government forces, fearing this would turn their neutral and independent status into a “legitimate target” for warring parties.

However, there have been calls for the government to step in. "We ask the government of Afghanistan to ensure our security," said Gunendu Roy, programme coordinator for a Bangladeshi development organisation, BRAC, in Afghanistan.

BRAC, which implements health, agriculture and microfinance projects in 25 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, with more than 3,500 Afghan and 180 Bangladeshi staff, lost one international staff member in northeastern Badakhshan province on 12 September in a security incident. A second Bangladeshi staff member has been held by unidentified abductors since 15 September in Logar province, the agency said.

"We demand the government secure our kidnapped staff member’s release," said Roy.

Uncertain future

The UN, NGOs and several other international organisations agree that, in terms of security, 2007 has been the worst year for aid workers in Afghanistan.

Growing insecurity in different parts of the country has brought problems of inaccessibility, which, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN, drives millions of impoverished Afghans into an unwanted humanitarian emergency.

For Lee, who closely monitors NGO security, the situation is deteriorating and there could be worse scenarios ahead.

De Beer of ACBAR says the situation has the potential to go either way. "Let's hope that security will improve," she said.

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Copyright © IRIN 2007
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
IRIN is a project of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.



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