The war on aid

Are Canuck forces trading aid for military info and endangering humanitarian workers?

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The world was shocked, earlier this month, when Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) pulled out of Afghanistan following the death of five of its workers, for which the Taliban took responsibility.

The group’s widely reported press release laid the blame for their evacuation on Afghan authorities, who, they complained, were reluctant to round up the gunmen responsible. But MSF scored much less type over their charge that U.S.-led coalition forces were endangering workers by tying aid to info on insurgents.

“Politicization of humanitarian aid,” the org called it.

And while no one has directly implicated Canadian forces in the aid-for-info bartering made so notorious in Afghanistan by the Pentagon, there are some ominous signs.

Call it a subtle blurring of the lines, but a recent quote from the head of Canada’s NATO-led Civilian-Military Cooperation team in Afghanistan (CIMIC), Major Richard Sneddon, can only be nerve-racking to NGO’s. “Aid,” he told the media, is “a military tool to achieve military ends” – just the kind of loose talk that can put aid workers in harm’s way. More than 30 of them have been killed in Afghanistan since 2003.

Though Canadian troops under CIMIC oversaw the completion of 23 CIDA-funded infrastructure projects – roads, bridges, schools – by the time they finished their mission in July, Sneddon suggested humanitarian assistance was not the bottom line. “The humanitarian side of it is a positive by-product,” he was quoted as saying.

“It’s certainly in our interests to build bridges,” Major Mike Audette, a spokesperson for the Canadian military, tells NOW. “But information on insurgents may be useful to us in protecting our forces or understanding the area in which we operate.”

Of course, some might point out that CIMIC’s entire mandate is exactly this blending of politically strategic military and humanitarian functions – but that doesn’t make things any safer for folks on the ground trying to service the survival needs of a traumatized populace.

The U.S. military, of course, are masters at this crossover. The mostly U.S.-led coalition’s Provisional Reconstruction Teams provide health care, dig wells and perform relief work. But in its most blatant confusion of mandates, the coalition dropped thousands of leaflets in southern Afghanistan. “To enable the continued supply of humanitarian aid, inform the allied forces about the Taliban, al Qaeda and (forces loyal to renegade commander) Gulbuddin,” read one leaflet with an image of an Afghan girl carrying a bag of relief supplies.

“There’s an implicit deal when we go out and do our work,” says MSF Canada’s Joe Leberer. “Humanitarian action remains neutral and impartial and independent. And in return, belligerents do not consider [us] targets of war.”

But now, he says, “there’s (been) a dishonouring of the deal by Western military powers, blurring the distinction between humanitarian and military objectives.”

That’s also the worry of CARE Canada’s Asif Rahimi, who worked in Afghanistan for 11 years. “When [the military goes] to a community to do a needs analysis, at the same time a number of them are looking for the bad guys, looking for intelligence information,” he says. “Military and NGOs presence together creates a situation in which on the next day, someone’s getting arrested and the whole reputation of NGOs is destroyed.”

Bill Twatio, senior editor at military mag Esprit de Corps, observes that sometimes it’s hard to distinguish what is an aid agency per se and what is an extension of the military – especially if U.S.-led coalition forces aren’t always operating in uniform, as MSF claims. “The military tends to see the aid agencies as its subordinates, while the aid agencies are frantically trying to keep their own identities. But this is breaking down more and more.”

In fact, Canada and the U.S. are increasingly adopting an integrated approach among government, military and development agencies. In Canada we refer to it as the three Ds – defence, diplomacy and development.

“One of the things that distinguishes Afghanistan from previous Canadian Forces missions is the unprecedented cooperation we’re seeing between the Canadian Forces, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Canadian International Development Agency,” former defence minister David Pratt told an audience at a conference in February called The Way Ahead For Canadian Foreign And Defence Policy.

“From the standpoint of future Canadian international engagements, Afghanistan is serving as a model for the government’s three-D approach to international affairs.” In 2001, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell described NGOs as “force multipliers” and an “important part of our combat team.”

To an extent, Leberer can see the merits in a strategy of cohesion.

“There are hundreds of maverick NGOs running around out there with no real accountability. They’re not really working with one another, so there are lots of gaps, lots of overlap,” he says. But this kind of organizational cooperation also provides a very convenient way of linking aid to foreign policy objectives.

More recently, Andrew Natsios, the administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, called NGOs “an arm of the U.S. government” and insisted they do a better job identifying themselves in the field as recipients of U.S. funding to show a stronger link to American foreign policy. If not, Natsios threatened to tear up their contracts and find new partners.

The UN, meanwhile, has called for a clear distinction to be made between military and aid organizations and called for further dialogue, but not much more than that. “Indeed, it is an issue that I fear will not be solved quickly,” says the UN Assistance Mission rep in Kabul, Manoel de Almeida e Silva. “You have a more complex situation, where new partners are coming onto the scene.”

A Canadian Foreign Affairs document in the works entitled Canadian Guidelines On Humanitarian Action And Civil Military Coordination In Complex Emergencies purports to lay down some guidelines on the matter. But Leberer saw a rough draft in April and is not so optimistic.

“The draft,” he says “was very geared toward military needs and not toward humanitarian needs.”

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