Deceptive Calm in Kabul

By Anne C. Richard

Kabul - Spring in Kabul is beautiful. The temperature is pleasant, skies blue and normally menacing security guards pose for photos in front of the gorgeous roses in bloom all over the city. Kabul is also calm, not having had a major security incident for months. But don't be fooled: this is a city under siege. Violent episodes across the country are forcing changes to how international aid groups carry out programs. The new American leadership at the US Embassy brings fresh energy yet continues Bush Administration approaches to development that are overly reliant on the military. Despite the optimistic tone of the Americans, Taliban insurgents are undermining reconstruction of the country.

Security incidents in Afghanistan are up from the same period last year. Data from ANSO, the safety office for aid agencies, indicate that suicide attacks are up, as are roadside bomb explosions, rocket strikes and small arms fire. In fact, armed opposition groups (called AOG here) thrive in their strongholds in the south and east and create havoc from Herat and Farah in the west to Kunduz and Baghlan in the northeast -- outflanking foreign militaries in Helmand and Kandahar. AOG attacks are usually targeted against the convoys or bases of international military forces, but the victims caught in the crossfire are overwhelmingly Afghan citizens.

This may be why the deaths of four International Rescue Committee colleagues of mine -- three expatriate women aid workers and their Afghan driver -- in an attack last August on the road south of Kabul sent shock waves through the international community. Handing my business card to a US embassy education expert still elicits condolences; many months later, she remains shaken by their murder.

This incident also triggered a re-thinking of aid agency work in Afghanistan. Longer-term development projects are being scaled back in risky provinces and short-term relief operations in more accessible areas are taking precedence. Expatriate staff must monitor aid projects from afar and avoid unnecessary travel.

Compounding the difficulty of working in this insecure environment is the US government's strategy -- which has been adopted by other countries and NATO -- of using the military-led provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) to undertake relief and development projects as a means of "winning hearts and minds" and as platforms for engaging with provincial and district governments. This deliberate blurring of military and humanitarian activities further endangers foreign aid workers and Afghan civilians. Aid agencies' pleas to keep development projects divorced and at a distance from counter-insurgency activities and military facilities -- in order to protect the agencies' staff and preserve local support -- have fallen on deaf ears.

Amid the deteriorating security situation, a new batch of Americans has come to town. The Obama Administration is restructuring the US Embassy and posting several seasoned diplomats to serve alongside the ambassador as deputy ambassador, assistant ambassador, overall aid coordinator, and elections expert. The increased American attention on Afghanistan is welcome. Learning that the leadership team is modeled on the embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam War does not, however, instill confidence.

To his credit, the newly minted ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, is determined to reach out to the Afghans and aid agencies -- international and local groups -- and bring them inside the walls of the embassy compound. He tells me he wants to hear their views and expose visiting Congressional delegations to the range of voices in this city. Eikenberry insists on Afghan capacity, ownership and sustainability and understands that aid agencies like the International Rescue Committee are staffed by thousands of Afghans working constructively to rebuild their country.

Can the enthusiasm of this new team mend old fractures in Afghanistan? Odds are against them. The Taliban can outwait the tenure of aid workers, diplomats and foreign troops and US and Afghan electoral cycles. With the international forces hunkered down in the south, insurgents causing havoc across the country and aid agencies forced to revise and restrict their programs, the only solution -- something on which the government of Afghanistan, aid workers and diplomats agree -- is a long-term investment in the Afghans themselves.

Anne C. Richard is a Vice President at the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian aid organization