Accessibility links

Breaking News

(Un)Civil Societies Report: October 24, 2003

24 October 2003, Volume 4, Number 29
DESPITE ISAF EXPANSION, AID WORKERS IN AFGHANISTAN WORRY ABOUT SECURITY, DONATION SHORTFALLS. International humanitarian groups working in Afghanistan welcomed last week's United Nations Security Council resolution mandating the extension and expansion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) through December 2004, objectives the groups spent months pushing for as attacks on relief workers have mounted. Without adequate security, humanitarians say, the groups cannot serve the population they have come to help. The stalling of relief and reconstruction efforts can fuel a new cycle of radicalism and violence for some, ultimately worsening the security situation for all. Aid workers are concerned, however, that the expansion, to be made in part through mixed military-civilian teams called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), is inadequate in numbers and misplaced in focus. "PRTs should be focused entirely on security," CARE USA's spokeswoman, Alina Labrada, told "RFE/RL's (Un)Civil Societies" in an interview this week. "They aren't making the places safer for reconstruction, which has been going on regardless. They should focus on security as we can't fill that gap. And they should spread out to more dangerous areas," she said.

In a September briefing paper, CARE raised concerns about the PRTs being substituted for ISAF expansion. Even the U.S. military admits, says CARE, that the PRT role "is not to keep peace, protect civilians, disarm militias, or intervene militarily between fighting militias." It is not only that the teams are small in number; their mandate is "restricted to intelligence gathering, negotiating, small reconstruction projects, and other forms of 'winning hearts and minds.'" Before they can do that, says CARE, there has to be more of a commitment to basic security that deters and prevents armed attacks.

Since September 2002, at least 90 attacks on unarmed humanitarian workers have been recorded in Afghanistan, some ending in deaths. Last month, gunmen killed four Afghans working for the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees (DACAAR) in Ghazni Province, AP reported 10 September. A fifth worker was wounded in the ambush. Ghazni Governor Haji Asadullah told the AP that remnants of the Taliban were to blame, but DACAAR representatives said they could not be certain who the perpetrators were. Earlier in September, four members of a road crew sent by the U.S. construction company Louis Berger Group were killed and four kidnapped on the Kabul-Kandahar road.

On 24 September, staff from the Voluntary Association for Rehabilitation of Afghanistan (VARA), an Afghan nongovernmental organization, came under direct attack from gunmen traveling in a taxi. The NGO staff were traveling in a pickup van through Helmand Province on their way from Delaram to Kandahar. One VARA staff member was killed in the attack, the seriously wounded driver of the vehicle died the next day, reported the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR). In August, two Afghans working for the Afghan Red Crescent were killed and three wounded when militants attacked their convoy in Ghazni. In March, Ricardo Munguia of El Salvador, employed by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, was ambushed and shot dead. The relief groups suspended their operations temporarily, but then resumed work.

These kind of risky conditions are understood to be part of the territory for humanitarian groups, who often must trail behind civilians fleeing armed conflict and are caught in the crossfire in combat zones. In Afghanistan the attacks have been deliberately made on humanitarian workers despite what is supposed to be a universally-recognized principle of neutrality for humanitarian workers. By hitting the most vulnerable targets, especially when foreigners are involved, the armed resistance can easily put scared and needy local populations back under their sway.

Humanitarian groups have taken steps to bolster their security and cooperate among themselves and with the United Nations and other international agencies in exchanging information about security incidents. Some 60 groups of about 700 staff people are joined in ACBAR. At some levels, conditions are greatly improved for humanitarian work in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban's rule; for example, under the Taliban aid workers could not even use their satellite phones to call their home offices and had to make elaborate adaptations to the fundamentalist's strict laws, such as banning women from the workplace. But the suddenness and randomness of the attacks could make the situation seem more precarious and the future uncertain, as humanitarian groups struggle to move from short-term emergency relief to long-term reconstruction and development projects.

...AS CONCEPTS OF MISSIONS DIFFER... CARE International, which has worked in Afghanistan for many years, has taken the lead in advocating increased security to enable humanitarian organizations to do their work but also stressing the need for clearly-defined and separate roles and sensitivity about the dangers of proximity of armed forces to civilian workers. They are the first to say they are not experts on military strategies. Indeed, that is why they wish the military would focus more on security and let them take care of reconstruction -- a division of labor they say will enhance the safety of the local population.

Ultimately, German UN ambassador Gunter Pleuger says, ISAF will expand to Herat in the west, Kandahar in the south, and Konduz and Mazar-e Sharif in the north. Germany's cabinet has approved sending between 230 and 450 soldiers to Konduz, a move the Bundestag (lower house of German parliament) is expected to endorse this week. The German government said in statement on 17 October that the selection of Konduz, about 125 miles from Kabul, was "sensible and justified" because it "would not put soldiers at excessive risk." Specifically, the troops will be guarding a German-based group helping to rebuild roads, schools, and hospitals. "The Economist" of 16 October called the area "safe(ish)" and a "stable backwater" and dubbed the German effort "cosmetic."

The soldiers will have a "dual role in bolstering security and aid work," the German government said in a statement 16 October. That's not what humanitarian groups had in mind when they lobbied for an extension of the foreign-military presence throughout Afghanistan. "They secure their own reconstruction efforts, and that doesn't hurt, because any additional security is always welcome, but the focus should be on security for civilians," says CARE's Labrada. Humanitarians want the forces deployed not only to guard their own mixed military-civilian unit, but also to provide protection for the local population. That means deterring and disarming militants and stopping attacks, a job that would evidently mean stretching the mandate beyond what government planners are willing to do.

Those working in the region agree that if no attacks on aid workers occur in Konduz and the area remains calm, then the troops would be better deployed elsewhere. The handful of PRTs currently operating in various areas have only 50-60 members per unit. The mixing of the military and civilian roles has also been a matter of some controversy for humanitarian organizations, although rather than protesting the issue with the governments from which they depend for funding, they have preferred to work out the difficulties at the operational level under constantly changing circumstances. Aid workers are concerned that when military and civilian personnel wear similar uniforms or drive around in jeeps with armed and unarmed persons indistinguishable, they are merging roles that should be distinct.

Aid groups say that when there is a military presence it can drive away the local population, which may not trust them. "If they [local civilians] are accepting aid from the PRT, which obviously has military members, they themselves can be targets. It definitely has a chilling effect for some people," says Labrada. Although it was not necessarily true across the board in Afghanistan, she said, enough people had been deterred from contact with foreign groups that it has been a problem.

There is a built-in contradiction to what the aid groups are saying. On the one hand, they want an enhanced, robust military presence, close enough to humanitarian projects to protect them and their clients, yet at enough of a distance to avoid deterring people who need help. They do not want the presence to be too imposing, yet they want soldiers to actively intervene in disputes and keep neo-Taliban, Al-Qaeda, narcotics traffickers, and other troublemakers at bay so that humanitarian workers can help rebuild the lives of ordinary Afghans. It's a delicate balance, best worked out in each specific situation, but with the protection of civilians -- rather than protection of the PRTs -- as the core of the policy, aid workers say. It is also a question of trying to take the limited number of troops that the international coalition can muster and placing them not where they will be safe themselves (and their mission less likely to stir controversy), but where they can protect the safety of others.

"Most of the attacks have been on the Kabul-Kandahar road," says Labrada, which means that would be a better place to deploy the PRTs. "Mazar-e Sharif also has had no PRT, and would be an excellent place to focus on security because of past attacks," she says.

Vikrem Parekh of the International Crisis Group, which has a mission in Afghanistan, told RFE/RL last week that members of various factions in Mazar-e Sharif have concluded that at least 1,000 troops "might be enough to create a neutral space in which security-sector reforms and disarmament can actually be carried out" (see, "Afghanistan: Kabul Welcomes UN Resolution On Expanded ISAF, But Many Questions Unanswered"). Such a bolstered force would immediately benefit the humanitarian effort as both international workers and local residents would feel more secure.

Without waiting for foreign troops to sort themselves out, the Afghan Interior Ministry sent 300 soldiers to Mazar-e Sharif in the wake of fighting there, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting reported on 22 October. Students had been complaining that they were being harassed by armed men on the way to school and some stopped attending classes, so the influx of soldiers was a relief for them. The difficulty, say some local observers, is that the local police force is dominated by the Jamiat-e-Islami party. The police chief has countered that only low-level policemen are recruited from Jamiat's 7th corps, while the officers are professionals. Coalition officials say they will help train the police.

Left unanswered is the question of whether a heavier military presence might invite attacks, similar to the theory of the "magnetization" of Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion -- making it more attractive for terrorists who have increasingly preyed on American soldiers and international workers since the end of combat operations.

Still, aid workers are confident that the model established in Kabul, where the ISAF maintains a force of 5,500, and where few attacks on humanitarian groups have taken place, could work throughout Afghanistan to their advantage.

...AND INSECURITY AND SLOW AID DELIVERY FUEL EXTREMISTS. If the protection of aid workers does not improve and they are prevented from getting assistance distributed more quickly and effectively, the risk is that Afghanistan's security situation will further deteriorate, setting up a vicious cycle where groups have to withdraw and watch as the situation worsens even further, making it difficult to come back in. Sometimes international groups can leave temporarily and work by "remote control" through local workers, but then those locals become vulnerable to opportunistic militants wishing to use them to "send a message."

Those working in the region say it is not just a question of sporadic hits, but a persistent escalation of attacks, a conscious and organized regrouping of the Taliban and related extremist elements that has, in part, succeeded because the relief effort has gone so slowly and been disastrously underfunded. CARE points out that donors have given less than 50 percent of what is really needed for reconstruction and have pledged less than 25 percent of the total required in CARE's estimate for the next four years. Ideally, CARE would like to see $20 billion made available for Afghanistan, using a formula of roughly $250 per person, per year, totaled up in the postconflict settings of Rwanda, East Timor, Kosova, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The war in Iraq, of course, has made claims on the budget for Afghanistan, but the chronic security problems and unforeseen levels of refugee returns have also driven up the cost of reconstruction for Afghanistan, says CARE. Worse, though money is allocated, due to insecurity and delays, only 1 percent of Afghanistan's reconstruction needs have actually been met in 18 months, say the humanitarian organization. "The longer Afghans are made to wait for concrete signs of greater progress, the easier it will be for extremists to exploit their resentment and for criminals to profit from the institutional vacuum that results," says CARE.

Massud Ansari of the Pakistani magazine "Newsline," while writing from Kandahar for "The New Republic" this week recounts how the Taliban is not just regrouping, but recruiting a new generation of young people from the madrassahs, or religious schools, of neighboring Pakistan. Refugees from Afghanistan who have known nothing but war and poverty are recruited. Ansari says there is significant unrest in at least a dozen of Afghanistan's 32 provinces -- the very areas that humanitarian groups say have been underserved by the PRTs and have cried out for the expansion of the ISAF. In fact, CARE says half of the provinces are deemed "high risk" and are simply off limits; three are medium risk; five others saw factional fighting.

With no security, especially in the country's southern region, Ansari says, "there has been little development work...the kind of aid projects that could win hearts and minds." Villagers have trouble even finding drinkable water, sometimes walking miles to fetch it. "We supported the international coalition because we thought they would change our lives, but so far nothing has changed," a villager who lives near Kandahar told Ansari.

Intelligence officials told Ansari that some 5,000 Pashtun youths from Pakistan have been filtering into Afghanistan to fight against the U.S.-led coalition. International aid groups and the media tend to focus on their own members who are killed, but the numbers of Afghans attacked and killed is far greater. Some 400 people, mainly Afghan soldiers, have been killed in guerilla attacks in recent weeks, writes Ansari, mainly along the roads or in their compounds at night while they sleep. Local people in search of peace and quiet have begun to remember the days of the Taliban, which meant basic law and order for many. "Hundreds of elder tribesmen have volunteered their youth to us," a Taliban leader told Ansari. They include small children, some even under 12, who serve as lookouts and do odd jobs. These are the children that humanitarian groups cannot reach by building schools and organizing activities because of the security difficulties.

The rapid and determined mobilization of fundamentalists in the madrassahs and the utopian vision of peace and order they offer some local leaders and young people in Afghanistan is in stark contrast to the slow motion of policy-making at the Security Council and the actual implementation of the international reconstruction projects and the expanded protection forces. Humanitarian groups are worried that while long-sought and much-needed help is finally on the way, it may come too late to significantly outpace those bent on destabilizing Afghanistan.

BLAMING THE VICTIM IN FLAWED ELECTIONS. The devastating toll for the opposition in elections in Azerbaijan this week -- at least 200 arrests, dozens of injuries, and one death as thousands of protesters clashed with police on 15 and 16 October -- is likely to have serious consequences limiting the opportunities for dissent and democratic development in Azerbaijan for some time to come. (See "Opposition Faces Uncertain Future," by Jean-Christophe Peuch,, 22 October.) Although slighted by the West in comparison to the democratic opposition elsewhere in the region for geopolitical reasons, Azerbaijani political parties and related nongovernmental organizations and newspapers (often intertwined as in other post-Soviet states) have enjoyed Western support for some years through training and direct funding as well as engagement at international meetings and dialogues in the U.S. Now they are likely to feel abandoned, human-rights activists and election observers say, because their well-wishers could not protect them when it counted. Like the highly flawed Armenian elections and the Chechnya election before them, the Azerbaijani elections have served to retrench authoritarians rather than promote democracy and genuine public participation. If the idea was to help fledgling opposition groups train so that some day, when the old Soviet-era leaders and their proteges finally leave the stage, they could play a role, the project has been a dismal failure. It could even be said that the opposition is likely to be pushed further into a corner. While the public does not have to endure the Soviet-era indignity of leaders claiming 99.9 percent support in controlled elections, they must watch helplessly as the roughly 80 percent the government claims to command really implies zero tolerance for the alternative 20 percent � which they suspect is a higher number, given all the pre-election manipulations.

Human Rights Watch reported several national leaders of the opposition have been among those arrested; elections have clearly provided a convenient cover to go after people that have long annoyed those in power and, once again, far from improving human rights and democracy in a country, elections have actually led to a worsening crisis.

The opposition and some Western observers clearly dispute the mere 14 percent of the vote said to have been won by Isa Qambar, leader of the Musavat Party. The Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (IDEE) (, a U.S.-supported organization, organized the participation of 188 observers from Western and Eastern Europe under the umbrella of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In sharp contrast to the OSCE itself, which criticized the election but appeared to validate it, IDEE's mission filed a dissenting opinion this week, supplying ample documentation of intimidation of voters, disenfranchisement, and ballot-box stuffing. The observers mustered by IDEE were journalists, parliamentarians, NGO activists and others from the region, many who had struggled for democracy in their homelands, who said they wanted to retain the meaning of the word "democracy" by crying foul at what they saw as sham elections in Azerbaijan. In recent years, IDEE had provided a platform for Qambar and other democratic opposition leaders on trips to the U.S. and Europe to make known their concerns about suppression of democratic movements and rigged elections. The Musavat Party was favored by their fellow democrats in the region and abroad because it is perceived as moderate, anti-Communist, anti-Russian, anti-Iranian, pro-American, and pan-Turkic.

IDEE workers say they saw violence used even against local election officials trying to monitor the vote counts, and documented how election bodies refused to make public the final tabulations of votes. While supporters using exit polls and other indicators believe Qambar had at least 46 percent of the ballot, no court in the heavily-controlled judicial system is likely to review his complaint. Even if Qambar only has 14 percent of voters backing him, the harsh lessons of the postelection melee is that a significant number of people have no legitimate outlet of expression, either in parliament, newspapers, through NGOs, let alone street protests, as all these avenues are already tightly controlled by the executive and are likely to undergo even further repression in the coming months.

The tools the OSCE has in its toolbox for expressing disapproval of unfair elections are extremely limited -- the rote formulas range from "meet" international standards to "fall short of" or "fall far short" of international standards. Bland statements about "missed opportunities," implying that the government's deliberate suppression of democracy was some kind of unwitting accident, is the kind of peaceful political discourse that grates on the ear in Baku, where the opposition feels the government never acted in good faith in the first place and ignored the suggestions of democracy assistance officials who advocated a more open political process. What was missed for the opposition were seats on the electoral commissions that would have, in their view, helped deter blatant fraud in the ballot-counting and would begin the process of power sharing. These were denied them, despite significant Western pressure (see "Entrenched Central Election Commissions Major Obstacle to Democracy," "(Un)Civil Societies," 10 September.)

When access to the political process through a free parliament, parties, civic groups, labor unions, religious organizations, and newspapers is blocked, and when the electoral commissions supervising the vote are not fairly constituted, it is hard to expect anything other than what occurred on 16 October in Baku. What is hoped for in such flawed elections -- all too typical for the region -- is that the opposition, while losing, will strengthen its public position as a credible alternative force. Because of the reality of gas and oil geopolitics in the region and the vital role of a secular state bordering Iran, Western governments did not anticipate or help bring about a Yugoslav-like scenario with the toppling of a dictator and cheering crowds in the square. Now they are focusing on the opposition's mistakes mainly because it is only the opposition that might prove able to change and adapt when, even before the elections, the government demonstrated that it could not accept the recommendations for democratization coming from the OSCE and other institutions.

In an interview published on on 4 August, Qambar said confidently that he thought he could win the elections, and stood by his claim that the 2002 elections would be the last ones that Heidar Aliyev would ever be able to falsify. He was apparently wrong. Yet with some prescience, he said that the government was becoming more frenzied in its bid to cling to power, and that also the government's lawlessness in dealing with the opposition "is getting so's very hard to calm down the emotions of those who defend our cause." Qambar recounted when, in July, he and his bodyguards were arbitrarily detained. He said it is one of several efforts to thwart his movements.

Regrettably, Qambar compounded his troubles by dramatically -- in the manner of sworn comrades-at-arms -- volunteering his own arrest and prosecution in the place of his followers who have been detained on charges of inciting violence. He is currently essentially under house arrest, but his offer to take the blame for violence which could have led to injury and death could be taken seriously by authorities and discredit him and his party permanently.

The events of 15-16 October still await a through, impartial, and transparent investigation. Human rights groups are already saying that the authorities deliberately provoked violence by not allowing any outlet for dissent. When groups sought a permit to march in the square of the history museum, they were denied. Although police knew for several days that groups would nonetheless gather at that location, they did nothing to prepare for crowd control and safely. Furthermore, say activists, police surrounded Musavat Party headquarters and police attacked first. Qambar's supporters were already infuriated at the various manipulations that prevented them from properly campaigning before the election, and when the police unleashed the strong-fisted tactics after the failed elections they became further enraged.

In their politically prudent and even-handed calls for both the government and the opposition to be investigated for provoking violence, Western governments may have established a moral equivalence between unequal forces that could easily lead to unfair prosecutions later on. A slam of the opposition for its miscalculations and mistakes overlooks the unequal playing field that prevailed long before election day. The opposition is easily put under the spotlight by the regime, but the Interior Ministry will be able to hide its deeds, which human-rights groups say include the use of torture. The result could be opposition groups that radicalize and grow disenchanted with the West, which they feel may have betrayed them; these could include some Islamists already active in and around Azerbaijan. What is more likely is that the democratic opposition will be further split between those who want to find some mode of dialogue with the new powers that be, at whatever cost, with Western advisers eager for any kind of progress looking over their shoulders, and radicals who will refuse to compromise on their principles and be marginalized. Democracy assistance, already quite insufficient for other political reasons, may likely be steered more toward think-tank projects about civic dialogue, roundtables between officials and citizens, and benign projects like AIDS awareness rather than robust election monitoring, legal action, and the kind of direct funding of human rights and independent media work that allowed many opposition groups to emerge and function in the first place.

Therefore a second betrayal could take place after the debacle of the elections, as groups that once enjoyed considerable engagement with Western institutions and thought they could count on them to cry foul in bad elections are then defunded, as occurred in Belarus and other countries where elections were a disaster. They lost the elections, so the reasoning goes, and were therefore not a good investment, although the groups themselves are likely to point to an ever greater need for consistent and substantial support as they hunker down for an even longer wait for the next opportunity for a democratic opening.

Even human-rights groups that tried to stay out of the political fray and simply monitor the proceedings are likely to find themselves further under attack -- they were already victimized with name-calling and specious accusations of collaboration with Armenia long before the elections. Along with coalitions of democratic parties and the independent media, they will require even more support than they have received in the past. Elections in Azerbaijan were all along a losing proposition, and those who nevertheless tried to take part in them ought not to be further punished by being dismissed as a nonviable alternative.

AZERBAIJAN "Unrest in Azerbaijan." A special section on RFE/RL's website with breaking news, features, and commentary on the crisis following the elections.

"Crackdown Deepens in Azerbaijan as Schism Hits International Monitors." A photo-essay by David Trilling. The elections monitors organized by the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe dissented from the official opinion of the OSCE on the elections. Monitors found ample evidence of a lack of voting lists, repeat voting, pressure on voters, lack of transparency in tabulations, and an all around lack of good faith.

"Missed Opportunities and Strategic Miscalculations," by Liz Fuller, "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 20 October. The 15 October Azerbaijani presidential election may go down in history as a turning point for three reasons. First, it provided a wafer-thin veneer of legitimacy for the transfer of power from ailing octogenarian President Heidar Aliyev to his son, Ilham. Second, it demonstrated the unwillingness of the international community to risk jeopardizing geostrategic and economic interests by unequivocally condemning blatant falsification of the ballot. And third, by failing to condemn falsification of the ballot, the international community has, wittingly or unwittingly, signaled to other entrenched CIS leaderships (Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan) that they have little to lose, and everything to gain, by following the Azerbaijani example. By the same token, it has sent a message to opposition groups that they cannot rely on the West to do any more than pay lip service to the need for democratization.

AFGHANISTAN "Good Intentions Will Not Pave the Road to Peace," September 2003. The international community is not making good on its promises to fund reconstruction of Afghanistan and, with the worsening security situation, attacks on humanitarian workers are increasing, says a study from CARE USA.

"Learning the Lessons? A Retrospective Analysis of Humanitarian Principles and Practices in Afghanistan," a report prepared by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. In analyzing 20 years of involvement in Afghanistan, the author concludes that "when big power interest is high, as a rule, the political people in the donor and UN bureaucracies take over policy and decision making, including humanitarian and human rights decision making, displacing or sidelining the humanitarian folk who often have a better understanding of ground realities."