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August 4, 2004

Humanitarian Groups: US, UK Subverting Afghan Relief Aid

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - The United States and Britain are being accused of undermining the work of international humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan by misusing aid to advance their military interests.

"There are times when aid agencies need the support of the military – as in Bosnia – but we are concerned about the increased involvement of the U.S. and UK military in the provision of aid," says Caroline Green of Oxfam International.

"Our impartiality is vital for us to carry out our work on the ground but this has become undermined by the United States giving aid to people not on the basis of need but in exchange for information," Green told IPS.

Besides aid agencies, humanitarian assistance – including food aid and relief supplies – have also been provided by coalition forces, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy, according to the U.S. State Department.

"Communities that we work with have become confused as the lines between aid agencies and the military have become blurred in Afghanistan," Green added.

As a result of the U.S. engaging in "aid for information," Oxfam was forced to close its program in Kandahar in 2003, she said.

Those charges have been strongly endorsed by several other international aid organizations, including Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF or Doctors Without Borders), Christian Aid and Concern Worldwide.

Last week, MSF pulled out of Afghanistan after having provided humanitarian assistance there for nearly 24 years. The reasons for the organization's withdrawal included a deterioration of the security environment in Afghanistan and, more importantly, the misuse of humanitarian aid by U.S. military forces in the country.

MSF also said it was unhappy with the lack of progress in a government investigation of the killing of five of its aid workers in the northern province of Baghdis in June, presumably by insurgents. MSF, which employed about 1,400 local staff and 80 international staff, ended all its operations last week.

"In Afghanistan, the U.S.-backed coalition has constantly sought to use and co-opt humanitarian assistance to build support for its military and political ambitions," says Michael Neuman, program officer at MSF.

"By doing so, providing aid is no longer perceived as being a neutral and impartial act, and this is endangering humanitarian aid workers and this is jeopardizing assistance to the Afghan people – the assistance which is needed," Neuman told IPS.

In May last year, MSF complained to the United States and other coalition forces about the distribution of a leaflet in southern Afghanistan that included a picture of a young Afghan girl carrying a bag of wheat.

The leaflet said that if humanitarian assistance was to continue, Afghans needed to pass information to the soldiers about all insurgent forces in the country, including remnants of the the former Taliban regime and members of the al-Qaeda terrorist group.

Neuman said MSF has been raising general concerns about the blurring of humanitarian and military objectives for years. "We have done this is at meetings with officials for different countries, including the United States and UK," he added.

Wherever there are coalition forces – or even UN agencies – mixing political and humanitarian mandates, "you will continue to see a danger for impartial, neutral and humanitarian action," he said.

"Humanitarian assistance is only possible when armed actors respect the safety of humanitarian actors. This is why we are calling on the coalition to cease all activity which tries to put humanitarian aid in the service of their political and military objectives,"Neuman added.

The coalition in Afghanistan, also called the combined joint task force, includes troops or logistical support from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Belgium, Jordan, Norway, New Zealand, Denmark, Italy, Germany and France.

Green said Oxfam International respects the decision of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to withdraw from Afghanistan.

"We understand why MSF feels that their position has become untenable. Oxfam International is gravely concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, which is increasingly affecting the ability for humanitarian and development organizations to work."

"We are also concerned about the inability of the government and the international community to do anything about the situation," Green added.

In 2004, six staff members from Oxfam partner organizations have been killed in attacks in provinces previously considered to be relatively safe.

"However we feel strongly that Oxfam is providing important services to the poor people of Afghanistan and the risks we face are currently manageable and we feel that we are able to continue working in Afghanistan," continue Green.

Most aid organizations and UN agencies have pulled out their international staff from another violence-ridden country – Iraq – primarily because of the security situation there.

Green said Oxfam decided to cease direct operations in the occupied country in April. "We had already withdrawn all international staff from Iraq in August 2003 after the bombing of the UN headquarters. The deteriorating security situation has made it virtually impossible for our staff to work effectively and this is why we made the decision to end our operations there," she added.

Just after the bombing, which killed over 20 UN employees, including Undersecretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello, the United Nations withdrew all of its international staff from Iraq. They are currently operating out of Jordan and Cyprus.

"The issue of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), military and humanitarian work is not a new one," Manoel de Almeida e Silva, a UN spokesman in Kabul, told reporters last week. "It is not new in Afghanistan and it is not new elsewhere."

He said it was an issue that NGOs have raised "with great concern, and we at the United Nations have played a role in facilitating and helping in the dialogue between the military and the NGOs," he added.

U.S. President George W. Bush told reporters Monday he regretted MSF's decision to close shop in Afghanistan.

But at the same time he trumpeted the fact that more than 8.6 million Afghans had registered as voters for October presidential elections, 90 percent of those eligible, according to the United Nations.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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