Should Aid Workers Leave Afghanistan?

The death of kidnapped British aid worker Linda Norgrove during a rescue attempt by US Special Forces in Kunar has prompted much debate, especially after it was revealed that she may have been killed by a US grenade and not a Taliban suicide bomber as initially reported. Some are asking if the US military should have exercised more restraint or whether the operation was even necessary. If the goal of such questions is to prevent more aid workers from dying in future, this line of inquiry is counter-productive at this stage. I sincerely doubt the British government would have green-lighted the military option had Ms. Norgrove’s life not been in extreme danger. Hostage rescue is extremely high risk and there is always a possibility that the person or persons you are attempting to free could be killed during an operation, especially in a dangerous location like Kunar (parts of which are so untameable that US forces withdrew from them earlier this year). Instead of pinning blame on the rescuing party, a more useful question is why are aid workers being encouraged to come to Afghanistan when they are such obvious targets?

Militants in Afghanistan make no distinction between foreign NGOs and NATO soldiers. It doesn’t matter that aid workers are operating in a humanitarian rather than a military capacity. As far as the Taliban are concerned, anyone working on behalf of the coalition is the enemy. The US and British governments know this to be the case, yet they still rely on NGOs to help implement the coalition’s counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

The idea of using NGOs as “implementing partners” sounds good in theory; the military clears the area of insurgents and the aid workers follow up with development projects to win the support of locals. In practice though, this strategy falls down on two major counts. Firstly, the coalition isn’t fighting a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, it’s embroiled in a civil war. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, having taken sides in that civil war, NATO hasn’t a prayer of winning the hearts and minds of Afghans on the other side of the divide no matter how many hydro-electric plants, girls’ schools, roads, canals and health clinics it builds.

The second and more devastating drawback of using implementing partners is that it destroys the firewall between military and non-military personnel working in Afghanistan; hence why the Taliban regard aid workers as an extension of coalition forces rather than a separate, neutral entity. The aid organization Ms. Norgrove was working for at the time of her abduction was Development Alternatives Inc, an NGO operating in Afghanistan on behalf of USAID. This association left her incredibly vulnerable. Indeed, DAI had already lost two foreign employees and a number of local workers when its offices in Northern Afghanistan were targeted by suicide bombers in July.

In the wake of that attack and the death of British aid worker Dr. Karen Woo in August, not to mention a rash of foreign journalist abductions, you’d think the FCO would advise against all travel to Afghanistan just as it has for Somalia (a country which security wise is on par with Afghanistan in my opinion). Yet incredibly, the FCO has banned travel in only certain regions of Afghanistan and has advised against all but ‘essential’ travel in others.

Politics should not dictate the FCO’s security recommendations but I suspect that is exactly what is happening here. So I’d like to offer a reality check. The security situation in Afghanistan has been steadily declining since 2004. In the past three years, it’s nosedived even in areas that were once considered relatively secure. I for one wouldn’t take a client outside Kabul at this time because the situation has grown so untenable that I cannot possibly provide them with proactive security. The best I can do is react to an attack. And as any security professional worth their salt will tell you, that’s just not good enough.

Politics aside, aid workers also need to keep in mind that they are soft-abduction targets in a country where kidnapping foreigners is a lucrative trade. It was reported that Linda Norgrove was the only long-term expatriate employee among 200 Afghans at her base location. How well were those local hires vetted? Who among them knew Ms. Norgrove would be traveling to Kunar that day, and who knew at the other end in Kunar? These questions may be politically inconvenient. They are undoubtedly politically incorrect. But they need to be asked.

Linda Norgrove died trying to make Afghanistan a better place. The loss of such a selfless and dedicated individual is beyond tragic. I hope something at long last is learned from it. The FCO and the US State Department should stop encouraging foreign NGOs to come to Afghanistan until the ground is genuinely secured. Until then, foreign aid workers be advised: you are a target.

Bob Shepherd is an ex-SAS soldier and bestselling author of The Circuit. His debut novel The Infidel, a modern-day Afghan war adventure-thriller is out now. To read more posts by him, please visit www.bobshepherdauthor.com.