Afgahanistan: will “surge” deepen humanitarian crisis?

Thousands of fresh foreign troops arrive in Afghanistan this year, but some prominent aid agencies are voicing concerns that this could lead to the intensification of the conflict, with dire humanitarian consequences. The civilian death toll has been mounting, and insecurity, attacks on, and intimidation of, aid agencies have also squeezed humanitarian space across the country, thus reducing or denying essential services to many vulnerable communities.

“In our experience, every massive increase in troops since 2005 has led to intensification and spreading of the conflict and an increase in civilian casualties,” Reto Stocker, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Afghanistan, told IRIN.

President Obama has said the extra 30,000 US troops would help secure areas and create safe environments for development to take place, but the Taliban have vowed to step up their campaign of violence in 2010, and have been doing so even during the customary winter lull in fighting.

“If the increase in troop numbers means access to conflict areas diminishes further that will exacerbate vulnerability,” said Sheilagh Henry, head of field coordination at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“Should there be a further escalation of armed conflict in 2010,” warned Charlotte Esther Olsen, country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, “NRC with the humanitarian community in Afghanistan is concerned that high levels of internal displacement, or flight to neighbouring countries may occur.”

IRIN asked spokespeople at the headquarters of the NATO-led forces in Kabul about the aid agencies’ concerns but received no specific answer.

Further intensification of the conflict could have a disastrous impact on civilians that have already been badly affected by the fighting, aid agencies say.

They also fear that they themselves could increasingly become targets, with the insurgents aiming to create a widespread sense of insecurity, thus making humanitarian work more risky and difficult. The troop surge could also increase the military’s involvement in civilian, humanitarian and assistance projects, further blurring civilian and military boundaries.

“Important civilian objectives”
In his last briefing to the UN Security Council Jan. 6, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan Kai Eide warned: “The military surge must not be allowed to undermine equally important civilian objectives.”

Eide proposed strengthening Afghan government institutions, improving aid effectiveness and enhancing coordination among donors as key civilian objectives which should complement the military surge.

“Institutional development and enhanced coordination are long-term objectives,” said Ajmal Samadi, director of Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), a Kabul-based rights watchdog. “There is an urgent need for a response plan to the immediate humanitarian consequences of the anticipated rise in conflict in 2010.”

Traditional humanitarian principles stress assistance should be independent and impartial—serving the victims rather than any political agenda. In Afghanistan, holding that line has proven difficult.

Humanitarian action plan
OCHA said it has launched a $860 million Humanitarian Action Plan for 2010 in which vulnerable populations in Afghanistan are the key focus. Additionally, the organization is keen to set up an “Emergency Response Fund” which would help aid agencies to access a pool of funding readily available to respond to emergencies, including conflict-induced emergencies.

“The government, as the body ultimately responsible for the safety and security of the people of Afghanistan, must look into contingency plans for displacement,” said OCHA’s Henry.

However, much of OCHA’s and other aid agencies’ planning and strategies will depend on access, An attack on a guest house in Kabul on Oct. 28 in which five UN international employees were killed has affected the organization’s capacity: Since the incident, over 340 UN international workers have been temporarily relocated outside Afghanistan.

IRIN asked the ICRC, the UN and other aid agencies what should be done to minimize the impact of the conflict on civilians.

“The most efficient way to avert unnecessary suffering in times of conflict is strict adherence to international humanitarian law,” said Reto Stocker of the ICRC.

“We hope the number one priority in military operations will be civilian safety and protection,” Aleem Siddique, spokesman of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told IRIN.

“Military actors must adhere to the civil-military guidelines elaborated by the Afghanistan National Civil Military Working Group in 2007 in order to improve NGO security,” said Charlotte Olsen of the NRC.

From IRIN, Jan. 19

Such concerns have been raised before.

See our last post on Afghanistan.

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