N.G.O.'s in Afghanistan Vulnerable to Criminal Violence and Insurgency

Only a limited number of N.G.O.'s are left in Afghanistan due to insecurity. Here vehicles of Italian medical N.G.O. Emergency were left parked in Kabul between April and August when the N.G.O. left the country. (Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN)

Civilians working for nongovernmental organizations (N.G.O.'s) 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 N.G.O. as soon as he was released by Taliban insurgents on Oct. 20 in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan. He and two others, who had been working at a district medical facility on Oct. 16, 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 organizations 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 to take an oath. "I swore that I would no longer work for the government and foreign N.G.O.'s," he said.

Unprecedented attacks

Since January 2007, 106 crime and conflict-related security incidents have involved N.G.O.'s across the country, the Afghanistan N.G.O. Safety Office (A.N.S.O.) reported in October.

Anja de Beer, director of the N.G.O. umbrella organization ACBAR, says N.G.O.'s have been attacked by criminal groups as well as by antigovernment forces.

Although Taliban insurgents have been involved in most reported security incidents against N.G.O.'s, A.N.S.O. figures show that criminal activities—mostly with economic motivation—have increasingly affected N.G.O.'s 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 N.G.O.'s often remain beyond the rule of law and prosecution.

"Criminal impunity in the north and northeastern provinces is an equal threat to N.G.O.'s as is insurgency in the south and southeast," Nic Lee, director of A.N.S.O., told IRIN in the capital, Kabul, on Nov. 7.


According to Lee, in almost all armed looting and robbery incidents affecting N.G.O. convoys and facilities, shooting and abduction of N.G.O. 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 N.G.O. workers."

Antigovernment forces have abducted more than 60 N.G.O. workers compared with 20 by criminal gangs so far in 2007, according to A.N.S.O.

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

N.G.O. security

Many aid agencies operating in Afghanistan rely on communities and nonmilitary and nongovernment procedures for their security and protection.

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

Most N.G.O.'s 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, program coordinator for a Bangladeshi development organization, 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 Sept. 12 in a security incident. A second Bangladeshi staff member has been held by unidentified abductors since Sept. 15 in Logar province, the agency said.

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

Uncertain future

The United Nations, N.G.O.'s and several other international organizations 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 the United Nations, drives millions of impoverished Afghans into an unwanted humanitarian emergency.

For Lee, who closely monitors N.G.O. 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. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.