The Common Good

Blurred Lines Between Military and Humanitarian Efforts in Afghanistan Raise More Questions than Answers

091202-afghanistanReported in a recent Times article, leading non-governmental organizations (NGOs), speculate that the militarization of aid in Afghanistan blurs lines between military and humanitarian responses, jeopardizing the success of projects and the lives of staff, wanting a return of all aid work to NGOs. And while I'd like to wholeheartedly agree, I wonder if, at least in part, the rules have changed.

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All countries, cultures, families, etc. have unspoken rules from which they work -- even those in conflict and chaos. When I first moved to Kabul in 2003, residents were disgusted by suicide bombings, convinced they were done by the foreign jihadis, as blowing one's self up was un-Afghan... un-Islamic. Today, we know this is no longer true. The rules changed.

It used to be that humanitarian staff could work within an unstable political system, neutrally, and thus, safely. NGOs worked for years in Afghanistan despite the civil war and the strong-arm ruling of the Taliban, with decent levels of security. Yet currently, we see the risks for these people ever increasing.

A report released recently by some of the world's largest NGOs claims "too much money is being channelled through the military, risking the safety of humanitarian staff by blurring the lines between aid workers and the army."

This might be true. But it is not the only thing that is true. In 2006, four of our national staff were killed by insurgents, not because there was any association with military, but because they worked for foreigners daring to provide education and health care. At one time, unarmed NGOs lived with an unspoken assurance that they were, in a sense, off limits for violent backlash. This is no longer the case, and I don't think it can all be blamed on NATO doing development work through their Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).

Afghans are smart. They can differentiate between American people, American military, and American foreign policy, directing their frustration to the due source. Even still, resentment toward foreigners grows. Could it be that the "blurring of lines" is less about weaponry and more about the religiousizing of war? Could it be that humanitarian organizations are tackling more controversial issues, like education for women and girls, that is decreasing the perceived neutrality of development work? Yet how can we not address these issues? While the militarization of aid certainly adds to the risk humanitarian workers face, it is not the sole contributor. So is it possible to return to the old way, or has the increased polarisation demanded that we develop a new way forward?

The Times article does a great job highlighting many reasons NATO perhaps oughtn't be doing reconstruction work:

Development projects implemented with military money or through military-dominated structures aim to achieve fast results but are often poorly executed, inappropriate and do not have sufficient community involvement to make them sustainable.

This is well said, and likely to be quite true. Unfortunately, similar things can also be said of many NGOs. And while strongly disliking aid coming through the hands of those who hold weapons, we must also consider the alternatives, for there are many places in Afghanistan still too dangerous for humanitarian organizations to work. What then? Do we provide no assistance? What are different solutions to these needs?

From time spent in the soil of Afghanistan, I have more questions than answers. Being amidst humanity has a beautiful -- albeit bewildering -- way of drawing issues away from the ease of staunch black and white. So while the Times article is good, and highlights questions we need to be asking, I hope and pray the solutions created carry new and innovative problem solving. It is time we develop a new way forward in Afghanistan. The lives of many Afghans and our aid workers depend on it.

Heather Wilson is Marketing/Circulation Assistant at Sojourners. She served two and a half years in Afghanistan doing photography and communication work for developmental non-government organizations.

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