KABUL (Reuters) - Food convoys hit by rocket propelled grenades along major highways. A U.N. polio vaccination team targeted by a suicide bomber. A spurt in kidnaps.
Attacks on aid agencies in Afghanistan have spiraled this year, hampering reconstruction efforts just as the country faces both frustration from ordinary Afghans over slow development as well as one of its worst food crises and droughts in years.
For years, aid workers have been in the cross-fire in Afghanistan, often on the wrong road at the wrong time. But now there is increasing evidence international aid agencies, including U.N organizations, are becoming specific targets.
The attacks highlight a deteriorating security situation with the rise of the Taliban insurgency and criminal mafias as well as the loss of respect for the neutrality of agencies where the line between aid and military reconstruction work can be confused.
At least 26 aid workers have been killed this year. The number of deaths in the first three months of the year was nearly equivalent to all of 2007, while 2008 is on track to be the worst year for attacks since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.
The latest attack on Sunday was ominous. A suicide bomber attacked a marked U.N. vehicle. Two Afghan doctors working on polio vaccination for the World Health Organization were killed.
The bombing came after the killings in August by Taliban militants of three foreign women working for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a respected NGO.
“These were the most egregious examples of how NGOs and the UN have become targets,” said Ciaran Donnelly, IRC director in Afghanistan. “Each year the peak in summer violence gets higher.”
“It is said that Taliban doesn’t have to win, just not lose. This is the way the Taliban is showing they’re not losing.”
Violence has surged as the Taliban step up their campaign of guerrilla attacks and roadside and suicide bombs aimed at sapping support for the Afghan government and its Western backers.
Many roads south and east of Kabul are too dangerous for aid workers, especially foreigners. A U.N. worker said Taliban who stop cars may have photos and names of U.N. workers.
The problem is not just insurgents but also criminals who may kidnap workers to sell them to insurgents, or for their own ransoms, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office (ANSO).
The World Food Program said it had lost 800 tons of food aid in the first half of the year, enough to feed around 80,000 people for a month, after attacks on convoys. This comes as Afghanistan faces a food deficit of around 2 million tons.
“It is much worse than it was,” said Susana Rico, director of the WFP in Afghanistan.
“There are provinces (where) we can’t go for a month at a time. Most of the aid eventually gets through, but there have been increasing delays,” said Rico.
WFP officials say there have been 23 attacks on WFP convoys until August this year, compared with 30 in all of 2007.
In one case, eight trucks in a 50-truck convoy were driven away by attackers after an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) attack, never to be seen again.
In another incident, insurgents left a note after stealing a truck. “We have taken this food. Thanks very much.”
In five provinces in the south, WFP said only a third of last year’s 750,000 child recipients were turning up at schools for food aid due to Taliban threats.
Some aid workers say there are signs more radical insurgents are exerting influence in regions where for years local Taliban sympathizers have given the green eye to development projects.
“NGOs are perceived to be legitimate targets but on the ground local commanders often had a different view,” said one NGO worker, who asked to remain anonymous.
“Now there appears to be a radicalization of leadership, supplementing locals. Communities we have worked for years can protect us up to a point, but that point is diminishing.”
Many aid workers blamed the blurring of the line in Afghanistan between the military and NGOs.
International and Afghan forces are increasingly involved in building schools, clinics and wells, as part of counter-insurgency efforts aimed at winning popular support.
Another problem, aid workers say, is that U.N. aid agencies work under UNAMA, the U.N. agency also charged with giving political support to the government.
“Telling people this U.N. vehicle is about elections and this about humanitarian needs is a hard PR exercise,” said Donnelly.
NGO workers say three U.N. aid officials are leaving, angry that calls to split the two operations fell on deaf ears. “Anywhere else in the world NGOs would, should and do operate on both sides of a conflict,” Nic Lee, the ANSO director in Kabul, was quoted as telling IRIN, a U.N. news service.
“Only here ... that sense of independence has become a lot more politicized ... and it has become very difficult for NGOs to implement and enforce their neutrality.”
NGOs and aid operations have been known to complain of restrictions on access to both sides in conflict areas in other countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia, however.
In any case, many aid and NGO officials view blurring of distinctions as a growing problem in Afghanistan.
“The Taliban and insurgents are increasingly seeing aid agencies contributing to the U.S. reconstruction effort and the Karzai government,” said Maria Kuusisto of the Eurasia Group. “And the trouble is there is no end game in sight.”
Editing by Jerry Norton