As donors and government officials converge on London to discuss ways to support the military surge in Afghanistan, non-governmental organizations are wary. Some NGO representatives who are responsible for implementing humanitarian projects in the strife-torn nation worry that the international conference may undermine their missions.
Representatives from leading NGOs engaged in Afghanistan are not invited to the January 28 conclave in London. Their absence, they contend, could result in the further militarization of aid in pursuit of political objectives.
"Though there is now acknowledgement that there have been problems because the international community did not know much about the [on-the-] ground realities, they still did not invite civil society [groups] to this conference," complained G.B. Adhikari, the Afghanistan country director of Action Aid.
The agenda for the London gathering appears to support Adhikari's contention that civil society actors and NGO representatives aren't being heard. Though initially touted as a venue to "match the increase in military forces with an increased political momentum," the London conference agenda has since shifted to focus primarily on security issues.
Co-chaired by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, outgoing special representative of the UN Secretary General Kai Eide, and the former Afghan foreign minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta, observers expect the gathering to endorse an increase in the number of Afghan national security forces (army and police); a timeline for initiating the handover of security tasks to Afghan forces; and a strategy for reconciling and reintegrating the Taliban. In addition, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged January 26 to send an additional 850 German troops to Afghanistan.
The conference has been associated with buzzwords such as "development" and "governance." But the NGO community is suspicious of how troop-contributing countries are renewing focus on the integration of civil and military strategies. On January 27, seven major NGOs working in Afghanistan, including Oxfam, Action Aid and Care International, issued a statement expressing deep concern about "the harmful effects of this increasingly militarized aid strategy." The NGO statement went on to castigate donor countries for distributing a majority of their aid in provinces where their troops operate.
Helmand Province, which has become one of the most dangerous provinces for American soldiers, "gets the highest [level of] funding, while poor provinces like Dai Kundi and Bamiyan hardly get anything," Adhikari told EurasiaNet. "We are against funding of development activities through the PRTs [civil-military provincial reconstruction teams on military bases]."
In a separate statement, the international watchdog group Human Rights Watch asserted that stability in Afghanistan will prove elusive unless past rights abuses are addressed. The group called on London conference participants to grapple with the issue of warlordism, as well as take steps to ensure freedom of expression. "Justice and human rights are not optional extras," the HRW statement, released January 26, quoted Brad Adams, the group's Asia director, as saying. "To make progress in Afghanistan, the London Conference should not just focus on military plans in the south and east, but on producing implementable national strategies that tackle impunity and warlordism."
Recent statements by troop-contributing nations indicate the trend of directing aid to areas where foreign forces are operating is likely to intensify. Washington's "civilian surge" currently underway visualizes a significant increase of civilians embedded in military units. Moreover, the State Department's new stabilization strategy, announced on January 21, specifically intends to accelerate the distribution of aid near American military operations.
"Military involvement in developmental activities is, paradoxically, putting Afghan lives at risk as these projects quickly become targeted by anti-government elements," Oxfam and other NGOs said in their joint statement.
The blurred line between civil and military activities is making it more difficult for NGOs to operate safely, contends Ashley Jackson, Oxfam International's head of policy and advocacy in Afghanistan. "The civilian effort is being viewed as a force multiplier," she says, thus making all civilians, including NGOs, targets in the eyes of insurgents.
A recent report by a respected Afghanistan NGO, Safety Office (ANSO), underscores these concerns. "The perceptions of armed opposition groups towards NGOs have become much more significant factors of NGO security or insecurity," ANSO said in a recent quarterly security assessment.
For the first time, ANSO has publicly cautioned NGOs, asking them to be "wary of attempts by IMF [international military forces] and some donors to lure NGOs into areas recently 'secured' by IMF as these are some of the most dangerous areas for NGO due to risk of being associated to the military effort." According to ANSO, 19 NGO staffers were killed and 18 seriously injured in 172 incidents in 2009.
The increasing involvement of military forces in development activities has also drawn rebuke from the UN's Kai Eide. A military surge "must not lead the military to expand their engagement into key civilian" development priorities, such as governance and economic development efforts, he warned.
In his last briefing to the UN Security Council on January 6, Eide also said that despite a consensus on the need for a politically driven approach to Afghanistan, "the political strategy is too often shaped as an appendix to military thinking."
The January 27 NGO statement is critical of Eide's UN for not asserting and emphasizing the body's neutrality. The NGOs say the UN must be "more forceful in coordinating aid efforts, preserving [aid workers'] independence and improving their effectiveness, accountability and transparency."
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul