EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday (20 January) will review the situation in Afghanistan ahead of elections in April and the impending withdrawal of NATO armed forces. German NGOs hope the pull-out will reduce Taliban attacks on aid workers by ending the confusion between aid and military operations, euractiv.de reports.
The EU’s 28 ministers will debate the situation in a number of conflict areas, including Afghanistan on Monday (see background).
The meeting comes at a crucial point for determining post-2014 involvement in the country. This year, NATO is scheduled to withdraw its security forces from Afghanistan before elections scheduled in April.
According to Thijs Berman, a Dutch socialist MEP (S&D) sitting on the European Parliament’s Afghanistan delegation, “the quality of the 2014 elections [will be] even more important for the future of Afghanistan than the withdrawal of international forces.”
NATO withdrawal: A curse or a blessing for aid groups?
For development aid NGOs operating in the region, the withdrawal could make it easier to pursue civilian goals in Afghanistan. Alongside Afghan NATO employees, local aid workers from NGOs are continually targeted by radical Muslim Taliban groups.
From the view of Taliban fighters, aid personnel cooperating with security forces are synonymous with threats from the West.
To avoid becoming a target of attacks, aid organisations in conflict regions are calling for a clear division between their work and the work of security forces. Initiatives of this kind have been tabled before, but this time the issue is gaining new attention amid a drastic reduction of foreign troops in Afghanistan.
A number of German aid organisations are wondering what will come after the NATO withdrawal, particularly if they intend to continue their work along the Hindu Kush mountain range between central Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.
Working with security forces
The closer NGOs and security forces work together, the higher the risk that the Taliban will not differentiate between the two.
“It threatens our work, if we are perceived to be together. We do not want to be confused with military forces,” said Mathias Mogge, a board member at the German World Hunger Relief Agency (Welthungerhilfe), speaking at a press conference in Berlin on Thursday (16 January) about the upcoming NATO withdrawal.
The previous German government defined the concept of “networked security”, saying security is not only dependent on military action, but also “social, economic, ecological and cultural conditions, which can be influenced only through multinational cooperation.”
The concept is highly controversial for NGOs like the Welthungerhilfe.
Already in 2009, Wolfgang Jamann, the organisation’s secretary general, called the civilian and military cooperation a “sin”. Mixing military and reconstruction efforts does considerable harm, Jamann said, because the work of development workers is no longer seen as politically neutral.
Renzo Frick, coordinator at Doctors without Borders in Afghanistan, also hopes for differentiation. “We hope that the withdrawal of international troops will help reduce the blurred division between military agenda and humanitarian aid. We hope for the restoration of an independent, unaffiliated humanitarian aid in Afghanistan”, Frick said in an interview last August.
Not all agree however. Klaus Lohmann, regional coordinator for Weldhungerhilfe in Afghanistan, says the NATO intervention as such has not harmed aid efforts. “I would not say that the intervention of the past 10 years was a bad thing,” he said. After all, plans for “networked security” were not as bad as they initially seemed, he said.
Pressure to carry out the strategy did not endure and the concept did not have a negative affect on the work of his organisation, added his colleague Mogge. “We carried out projects just as we did before.”
Welthungerhilfe has been active in Afghanistan for over 20 years. At the moment 250 people are working for the organisation in the region, and only four of them are from outside the country.
Coordination with military forces
Over the last few years there has been barely any contact with the military, Mogge said. He pointed out that aid workers have actively sought to distance themselves from the security forces and that this strategy has been quite successful so far.
Close cooperation exists with the German embassy in Kabul, but there was never any push – concerning the “networked security” plan – for more coordination with the security forces, Mogge explained.
For these reasons, Lohmann said, not much will change for his organisation after the troop withdrawal. “Concrete threats do not exist,” he said.
The Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO) is also a valuable partner NGO that informs aid organisations on the ground about the current security situation. But Lohmann emphasised that Welthungerhilfe primarily focuses its efforts on improving the drinking water supply, rural development and emergency assistance.
He said he could not speak for NGOs that deal with education and women’s rights. The risks faced by them are completely different, he points out.
Regarding future interventions in conflict regions, Mathias Mogge said he hopes “that the ghost of networked security will be viewed a bit more realistically.”
The military on the ground sees the situation much more realistically than the people in Germany’s Federal Development Ministry (BMZ) and can always identify with the position of the NGOs, Mogge said. In light of new leadership in the Development Ministry, Mogge said he hopes concerns from NGOs will be taken more seriously.