In 2013, Afghanistan was again a very challenging country for aid workers — but this year could could be even tougher.
Just last month, 21 civilians were killed when Taliban suicide bombers targeted a popular Lebanese restaurant in a very secure part of Kabul. The dead included eight Afghans and 13 foreigners, among them four United Nations staff, a tragedy that confirms humanitarians are definitely considered an enemy by the insurgents.
“Such targeted attacks against civilians are completely unacceptable and are in flagrant breach of international humanitarian law. They must stop immediately,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, commander of the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command and deputy commanding general for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, added he expects more “suicide-type, high-profile, spectacular attacks” to follow.
Insecurity has taken its toll on the humanitarian aid workers in the country. On 24 January, unknown gunmen shot dead a polio vaccinator in Helmand province, and so far this year the Aid Worker Security Database, a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded project, has recorded four attacks on humanitarians.
In 2013, the United Nations reported a total of 237 incidents against aid workers, facilities and assets in Afghanistan, which resulted in 36 deaths, 24 arrests, 46 injuries and 72 kidnappings in a sector which encompasses over 2,300 organizations employing about 90,000 people in the country.
Sayed Hashim Basirat, head of the NGO Registration Directorate at the Afghan Ministry of Economy, in December told The New York Times that the vast majority of those are Afghans, — only 3,337 foreigners are in their records — and added that there has been a remarkable decrease in the number of local organizations that get funds from donors because the latter are worried about insecurity.
While the government is still struggling to deal with myriad development challenges, the most important of which is the widespread violence and insecurity across the whole country, the upcoming presidential and provincial elections, coupled with the drawdown of foreign troops at the end of the year and the conclusion of the bilateral security agreement with the United States, could all worsen the situation even further. In the run-up to the vote, Taliban insurgents will like orchestrate a campaign of fear and terror with attacks against government officials, local politicians and security forces, foreign soldiers and aid workers in the coming weeks.
To minimize bloodshed, humanitarians deployed to Afghanistan should adapt certain precautionary security measures, like staying well abreast of social, political and security developments, operate with extra cautions and vigilance, avoid taking any unnecessary risks and limit their exposure.
“I have always felt relatively secure. It has been the view amongst the international community that if you follow the advice of your security advisors and do not take risks all will be well,” an international development consultant that has been working in Kabul since 2009 said on condition of anonymity. “In the past five years there had been few attacks intentionally focused on the international aid workers, and if the Taliban had wanted to kill foreigners in Kabul it would have been very easy.”
This aid worker added: “The assumption was that we weren’t a target. As a result, Kabul had quite a vibrant social scene with around twenty different restaurants that the internationals enjoyed going to and felt safe there.”
“However, that all changed on 11 January with the bombing of the Lebanese restaurant, one of those ‘safe’ venues enjoyed by the foreigners,” admitted the consultant. “Most of the donors and international companies have now put all such venues on the ‘out of bounds’ list and it is likely to stay that way for some time.”
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