How the US blurred the line between aid and the armed forces

By Anne Penketh, Diplomatic Editor

The Independent

29 July 2004

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the distinction between soldiers and aid workers is fatally blurred. The relief agencies, trying to remain neutral as they struggle to deliver desperately needed supplies, have lost more than 30 workers in Afghanistan in 18 months.

The UN and the Red Cross were hit by suicide bombs in Iraq which killed 22 people. Many in the international aid community blame the rising death toll on President George Bush and his "war on terror".

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, has been singled out for particular blame. He told NGO leaders in October 2001, just after the 11 September attacks, that they were the "force multipliers" of the military effort against terrorism.

"That was a disaster for us," says Dominic Nutt of Christian Aid, which is remaining in Afghanistan despite the security concerns that forced yesterday's shock withdrawal of Medécins sans Frontières (MSF). "We can't be afford to be associated with the military or politicians. But we're not seen to be neutral any more because of the way the Americans have set things up in Afghanistan."

The trouble had been brewing since the disastrous American foray into Somalia in 1993, when a UN peace-keeping force dispatched to help alleviate famine became transformed into the US hunt for the warlord, Mohamed Farah Aideed. Debate in the aid community then intensified over Kosovo, when Nato provided logistical help for ethnic Albanians fleeing across the border after its bombing campaign started. Nato's humanitarian role was bitterly resisted by some relief agencies such as MSF.

But calls for the clear separation of military and humanitarian roles have become more urgent since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the relief agencies in the firing line because of the perception that they are working for coalition forces. "Christian Aid worked in Afghanistan in the Soviet period and under the Taliban," Mr Nutt says. "This the most dangerous period for aid workers it's ever been. We're now targets."

Seven people working with Christian Aid were murdered in Afghanistan in the past two months, he says. "Those who escaped said the people who shot them were the Taliban, accusing them of being US agents."

Part of the confusion stems from coalition "hearts and minds" teams of US and Nato troops. Soldiers with the Provincial Reconstruction Teams are providing basic health care, digging wells and other work normally done by civilians.

"We all look the same," Mr Nutt said. "Aid workers in comfortable clothes with a bottle of water; soldiers who are not always in uniform; soldiers doing aid work with civilians so nobody knows who is doing what, why and when."

Paul O'Brien, the overseas director for Concern Worldwide, says: "We could use the military for logistical support. In Mozambique, the South African military sent helicopters to rescue flood victims. But for the most part, the aid community wants to draw a line between their role and ours."

In Afghanistan, he says, the military "want to do humanitarian work, so they take off uniform and maybe have their weapon nearby. But the Afghans look at NGOs and the military people; they need to know there is a huge difference between the two".

Oxfam, which has 10 international and 100 local staff in Afghanistan, pulled out of Iraq months ago because of deteriorating security. A spokesman, Brendan Cox, says: "One of the points we made there was that the coalition had to do more to differentiate between the occupying force and other agencies, including shared flights and facilities."

But there have also been disturbing reports of the US military using aid as a political weapon, which has further contributed to undermine the neutrality of the NGOs.

The United Nations last month issued guidelines for military participation in humanitarian activities. One crucial recommendation was that, "humanitarian work should be performed by humanitarian organisations".