Afghan deaths won't alter aid missions

By 
  • August 21, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - As the Taliban issued an explicit threat against Canadian aid workers and killings of NGO staff reached record levels in Afghanistan, the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace said it remains committed to its work with women’s groups straddling both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in the zone of conflict.

“The projects are mainly projects developed by the Afghan people themselves. We do support the Afghan groups. It doesn’t change the way we will be intervening in Afghanistan,” said Danielle Gobeil, Development and Peace’s assistant director for international programs.

Four more development agency workers were killed just south of Kabul Aug. 13. The attack brought Western aid agency deaths to 19 in 2008 — a new high for Afghanistan. Jackie Kirk of Montreal, Shirley Case of Williams Lake, B.C., Nicole Dial, a dual citizen of the United States and Trinidad, and Mohammad Aimal of Afghanistan were gunned down in their vehicle clearly marked with the emblems of the International Rescue Committee.

The Taliban followed up the attack with an open letter to Canadians urging them to persuade their government to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and threatening to kill more aid workers. A Taliban spokesman told The Globe and Mail its attack on International Rescue Committee aid workers was retaliation for a U.S. air strike which hit a wedding party in Jalalabad July 6 in which the Taliban claims 49 were killed. A U.S. military spokesman said only 27 insurgents were hit.

Development and Peace has no Canadians on the ground in Afghanistan, but spends about $100,000 a year supporting local non-governmental organizations led and staffed by Afghanis. But being Afghani doesn’t protect aid workers, whom the Taliban regard as agents of the foreign occupation of their country.

“They are targets,” said Gobeil. “They know the game. They have always been targets.”

All development agency workers, Afghani and Western, are endangered by Canadian policy which conflates development work with military objectives, said Gerry Barr, Canadian Centre for International Co-operation executive director. CCIC represents most of Canada’s development agencies.

“What we are doing is creating a very dangerous brew, a very toxic blend of war fighting and development, and it will come to no good end,” Barr told The Catholic Register.

Barr is angered by Western media reports that make much of kidnappings and deaths of Western humanitarian staff but almost ignore Afghani deaths in the development community.

“Just make one little editorial shift and we’re at 40 (deaths) last year,” he said.

It isn’t just the aid workers but the communities they serve who become targets when the military takes on development work, said Barr.

“When schools and wells become kind of tokens of fidelity to one side or the other in an insurgency war, and signals of potential loyalty, then they plainly will become targets,” said Barr. “It is inescapably the case.”

Phone calls from The Catholic Register to CIDA and International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda’s staff were not answered.

Most Catholic agencies at work in Afghanistan work primarily with local staff with only minimal and occasional presence of Western aid workers. None have decided to quit Afghanistan, though all are concerned about rising numbers of civilians and humanitarian workers caught in the crossfire.

The Netherlands’ Catholic development agency Cordaid does have some Dutch staff in Tarin Kowt, a town where Cordaid runs a hospital for the province of Uruzgan.

“We don’t think we should retire from Afghanistan,” Cordaid spokesperson Karen Mol told The Catholic Register. “We think we should continue looking for creative and constructive solutions and ways to work there.”

Cordaid constantly monitors the level of violence surrounding its projects in Afghanistan, but has set no threshold that would trigger the agency to withdraw, said Mol.

Staff at the Tarin Kowt hospital try to keep their distance from the military, Mol said.

“For the view of the Taliban, but also the local population, they have to know that this hospital is there for them and that it’s neutral ground that they always can go to,” she said.

But staying completely separate from foreign troops is difficult when military personnel and humanitarian staff are working in the same town.

The Irish Catholic development agency Trocaire issued a statement following the Aug. 13 attacks which claims the level of insecurity in Afghanistan is impeding humanitarian workers trying to address drought and increasing hunger because of rising food prices.

Trocaire lays out nine conditions for success of the humanitarian mission in Afghanistan, including a call on Western powers to “conduct transparent investigations of incidents involving civilian casualties” and on insurgents “never to attack humanitarian, development and medical personnel or supplies.”

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