Security for aid workers in Afghanistan is deteriorating, and non-government organizations blame U.S. development policies for putting more lives at risk.
The U.S. Agency for International Development requires that humanitarian-aid projects in Afghanistan support the military's war strategy, a policy that has made aid workers targets for the Taliban, say non-government organizations, or NGOs.
"There are more attacks on aid workers now," said Ann Richard, vice president of government relations at the International Rescue Committee, a non-government organization with programs in Afghanistan. "Security for NGOs has gone in the opposite direction."
USAID policies support the counterinsurgency (COIN) war strategy in Afghanistan, and the agency allocates money to NGOs based on how their projects "contribute to COIN goals," according to agency guidelines for development in Afghanistan. (COIN is shorthand for counterinsurgency, the war strategy used in the Iraq and Afghanistan that coordinates military force with development and peacekeeping efforts to defeat insurgent groups.)
USAID grants require aid organizations to work closely with the military on projects like "battlefield cleanup," where aid workers are sent to clean up post-conflict damage in communities where there was heavy fighting, Richard said.
Merging nongovernment aid projects with military operations has tarnished the apolitical, impartial image critical to the safety of aid workers, many organizations say. The general assumption among Afghans is that aid organizations are working for the U.S. military, said one aid worker who helps run medical programs for an organization that has worked in Afghanistan for more than 15 years.
"If there's anger at the military, then often times the NGOs will have to pay for it," said the aid worker, who asked not to be named for fear he might jeopardize the organization's programs.
Three aid workers were killed in July when suicide bombers attacked the compound of Development Alternatives, a consulting group that helps implement USAID development projects in Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which officials said was a response to the recent surge of U.S. troops.
"Even the perception of being tied to the military can have tragic results," said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at Center for American Progress.
Development aid has been tied to counterinsurgency since the war strategy was implemented in Iraq during the Bush administration, but only recently have nonprofits started to collectively push back. The Obama administration has ratcheted up aid efforts in Afghanistan, where the need for infrastructure and humanitarian aid far exceeds that in Iraq.
Safety concerns are paramount in Afghanistan, where insurgents are killing civilians at a rate three times higher than they did during the Iraq war, according to a paper released in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The Taliban's killing of 10 members of the Christian organization International Assistance Mission on Aug. 5 has escalated fears among aid workers.
"It's not a good situation," said Beth Cole, director of intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Institution of Peace. "The Taliban are circling Kabul. The days are waning."
Since the start of 2010, there have been 76 attacks on non-government workers in Afghanistan, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent group that provides security information for humanitarian workers in the country. Fifteen of those incidents, which include violent attacks and abduction, occurred in July.
Several non-government organizations working in Afghanistan have stopped applying for USAID grants and are instead seeking more money from private donors and the European Union, aid workers reported. Still, many organizations say they cannot regain the trust they worked to earn in Afghan communities since long before the 2001 U.S. invasion.
Some argue that the NGOs' blame is misplaced. Because of the increased threat from insurgent groups, aid organizations have to change the way they work in Afghanistan and learn to coordinate with the military.
"You cannot rely on your good relationship with the local communities to keep you safe anymore," said Richard Owens, director for community stabilization at International Relief and Development, who has a background in coordinating military-civilian operations. "In a world where the Taliban exists, all bets are off."
Nonprofits are "naive" to think their association with the military puts them at greater risk, said Andrew Natsios, a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University and USAID administrator from 2001 to 2006. The Taliban target any organization that is bringing development to Afghanistan, which includes most Western nonprofits in the country, he said.
"Whatever is not 12th century in their worldview is regarded as the enemy," Natsios noted. "What the Taliban is fighting against is modernization."
The Taliban killed the 10 Christian aid workers because it believed they were "spying" and "preaching Christianity," according to media reports. The international group, which included Afghanistan nationals, had worked in the country for more than 30 years.
A senior adviser at one high-profile aid organization working in Afghanistan said his organization had access to Taliban-controlled areas because aid workers spent years proving to insurgents that they did not have a political mission. The organization is rethinking where they can send workers and the type of projects they can do under increased security threats.
Development resources have been funneled to areas in Afghanistan where U.S. military forces are concentrated. Health development programs in other areas of the country have been shut down, replaced by new projects in the south and east, where fighting is the heaviest, said Leonard Rubenstein, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University and former U.S. Institute of Peace fellow.
The inequitable distribution of aid runs contrary to nonprofit development practices that stress equitable resources across ethnic groups, and has created animosity among some communities "who feel they are being penalized for being peaceful," according to research by Andrew Wilder, an expert on governance and aid in Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Some NGOs fear communities that have lost development projects may lash out at aid workers, creating new conflict in previously stable areas.
"It's actually counterproductive," Rubenstein said. "You're really shooting yourself in the foot."