Despite increasing calls from aid agencies to let them handle Afghanistan's humanitarian needs, NATO is proceeding with plans to enhance civil-military cooperation in the country, especially through the operations of provincial reconstruction teams.
While the rhetoric drew self-congratulatory pats from most member countries during the April 4 NATO summit in Strasbourg, France, humanitarian aid workers based in Afghanistan say they are worried about how the Atlantic Alliance's new security and aid policies will affect their work, and their safety.
Their concerns appear to have gone largely unheeded by NATO leaders. The summit's declaration on Afghanistan noted that NATO members "are boosting . . . efforts to coordinate the contribution of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) to build stability and further align their work with Afghan Government priorities."
Just before the summit, in an unprecedented move, a group of influential aid agencies joined hands to urge for an immediate halt to some of the specific civilian-military policies. In all, 11 organizations called for a de-linking of aid delivery from military goals, changes in the operational strategies of the international military forces, phasing out the strategy of distributing aid through the PRTs and halting two specific new security policies that they say will put Afghan communities at greater risk.
While humanitarian and development agencies have expressed concern about the civilian population from time to time, this concern previously tended to be expressed in general terms. Never before have NGOs gotten so specific. The NGOs who have come together to formulate a common position are all widely respected and with long-term track records in Afghanistan, including Oxfam, Care, Action Aid and Save the Children.
Among the military measures that these organizations are wary of are the Afghan Social Outreach Program (ASOP) and the Afghan Public Protection Force (APPF), both sometimes referred to as "empowerment programs." The ASOP seeks to build local support and communication networks by gathering information about militant activities through shuras (local bodies of influential people). The deputy head of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR, an umbrella body of over 100 NGOs), M.H. Mayar, questioned the program, saying it would compromise the independence and impartiality of NGOs that work with shuras.
The opposition to the APPF, a program that is currently in the testing phase, has been much stronger. The APPF seeks to arm local community forces, essentially creating militias to meet the shortfall in security forces, much like programs the United States has used in Iraq. The forces, which will be answerable to local networks, will have less oversight than regular police or army units, less accountability and less training. Mayar challenged the efficacy of the scheme saying such attempts had failed in the past. Mayar added that the APPF's intent ran counter to another program, which was designed to promote disarmament among armed groups. He stressed that armed groups could change sides, or use their weapons and new status to settle local feuds, thus further endangering local communities and the NGOs delivering aid.
Concern about the safety of civilians and the aid agencies also lies at the heart of the opposition to the proposed expansion of PRTs, which were initially set up as a temporary strategy to plug the gaps in the small pockets of insecurity where civilian agencies where unable to function. As insecurity grew, they were later expanded throughout the country. With intensifying conflict, the PRTs' role changed, focusing more on heart-and-minds campaigns. Donor agencies, under pressure from their governments, followed suit, redirecting a substantial portion of their aid to the areas where their troops were based. Increasing insecurity has meant that this aid delivery is now routinely directed from the confines of regional military bases. NGOs argue that this has resulted in increasing dangers to them, as well as to the recipients of aid, both of which are seen to be having links to the international military forces.
At a press conference to release the report, Dave Hampson, Country Director of Save the Children UK, said "the main problem is the blurring of lines" between the civilian and military. Matt Waldman of Oxfam added that the "increasing militarization of aid" means aid is more often addressing "military objectives and not the needs of Afghans." He said the NGOs and humanitarian agencies hoped that "more aid will be channeled through civilian agencies and that the PRTs will transition to focus on security."
"When security and other conditions exist, which allow specialized civilian development actors to operate, the military should not be engaged in activities in the development or humanitarian sector," says the report on civilians in conflict released by the same group of NGOs. "The PRTs' hearts-and-minds approach to assistance, drawn from counter-insurgency doctrine, is not only unsustainable, it is highly unlikely to achieve its intended security objectives," the document states.
NATO, however, appears ready to move ahead seemingly undeterred. A statement on the NATO website after Strasbourg said that Atlantic alliance leaders "recognized that to do this work will require a greater civilian component to the forces being sent to Afghanistan." A January report to the US Congress from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted that the US Embassy in Kabul had proposed the establishment of four new PRTs and the creation of 215 new related civilian positions. This, Waldman of Oxfam argued, would lead to increasing distortion of the use of aid to achieve military objectives.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.