It survived Soviet occupation, civil war, the Taliban and US-led invasion. But after 24 years of aid work, Médecins sans Frontières has been forced by the American military to flee Afghanistan

By Nick Meo in Kabul

The Independent

29 July 2004

Aid workers who remained in Afghanistan throughout the years of Soviet occupation, tribal anarchy and Taliban rule are preparing to flee the country because US military tactics have made it too dangerous to operate there.

A grim shadow was cast over the future of all aid missions to Afghanistan when the French organisation Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) said independent humanitarian work could no longer be carried out safely. MSF claimed the American military had endangered the lives of humanitarian volunteers by blurring the distinction between soldiers and aid workers. Five MSF workers were killed last month.

The announcement came as the Foreign Affairs Select Committee was preparing to put on record its fears about a rise in heroin production since the fall of the Taliban as part of a report to be published today into the war on terrorism. The Foreign Office has admitted that the opium harvest this year will be one of the biggest on record.

The organisation's decision to leave Afghanistan two months before the presidential election left Kabul's foreign aid community in shock.MSF won the Nobel peace prize in 1999 and has worked in Afghanistan for 24 years amid horrifying violence.

MSF has also suggested that the Afghan government was sending out a message that it was acceptable to murder aid workers by failing to take action against suspects in last month's murder of MSF staff.

It expressed a "deep feeling of sadness and anger" about its decision. Although no other organisations have announced plans to follow MSF's lead, many are reviewing their position in the approach to October's presidential elections. Taliban attacks are expected.

Kenny Gluck, MSF's operations director, denounced US military programmes in southern Afghanistan, which have sometimes promised aid only to villages which provide intelligence on Taliban fighters.

He said: "MSF denounces attempts to use humanitarian aid to win hearts and minds. That jeopardises the aid to people in need and endangers the lives of humanitarian aid workers ... These soldiers are often out of uniform. It's hard to know what nationality they are."

He added: "The US-backed coalition has consistently sought to co-opt humanitarian assistance to build support for its own military and political ambitions." Mr Gluck said the coalition had several times apologised for activities the agencies found threatening, such as distributing leaflets promising aid for information, only for the same thing to happen again later.

The shooting to death of three European and two Afghan staff members last month was described as unprecedented in MSF's 30-year history of working in the world's most violent conflicts. The motive has not been established, but valuables were not taken from the victims' clearly marked car and they were killed in an area known for opium poppy production. MSF believes its staff were deliberately targeted.

Security experts in Kabul believe more foreigners may be attacked. Since the start of last year, 30 aid workers have been killed, mainly in rural provinces where security is worst.

Yesterday, a bomb exploded in a mosque in a south-eastern town where Afghans were registering for the elections, killing at least two people and seriously wounding two others, officials said. Three rockets fired into Kabul overnight set off a secondary explosion at an arms dump and blew a hole in the road in front of the Chinese embassy. No one was injured.

One aid worker who has been in Kabul for three years said: "Although the economy is doing well and Afghans are more confident, but foreigners who know the country have never been more scared. There's a real sense of dread about what will happen during the election campaign."

About 20,000 American troops are in Afghanistan. A few British soldiers are stationed as peace-keepers, some manning provincial reconstruction teams, small garrisons which have proved controversial with aid workers, but many have welcomed the security they have brought to cities outside the capital.

Aid groups' concerns centre on the actions of combat troops trying to win over villagers in areas afflicted by guerrilla warfare. Despite years of work by organisations such as MSF in the country, many villagers now confuse aid workers and soldiers, Mr Gluck claimed. "We have seen military people with weapons and in white cars providing health care. How can you expect Afghans to distinguish?"

Aid workers particularly criticise US special forces teams who sometimes operate clinics to win over local populations or distribute sweets and toys to village children.

The pull-out will affect 80 foreign and 1,400 Afghan staff, most of whom will lose their jobs. Although clinics and health programmes in some of the country's most deprived areas would be handed over to the Afghan government, thousands of people would lose access to health care, he said.

Phil Halton of the independent Afghanistan NGO Security Office, which advises aid workers on safety, said he expected other organisations to now take another look at whether or not to stay. Two weeks ago, Goal, a small Irish group that works with children, left Afghanistan quoting security fears.

Mr Halton said: "It really is a watershed when MSF pulls out. They are regarded as an outfit which is prepared to go to riskier places than anybody else."