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NGOs Say Foreign Troops Must Better Protect Afghans

NGOs are concerned that some military practices make NGO and aid workers more likely targets for attacks by militants.
KABUL (Reuters) -- Foreign aid agencies have said international military forces need to better protect civilians and be more open about accidental deaths and injuries, or they risk undermining their mission to stabilize Afghanistan.

Military "hearts and minds" efforts to win over ordinary Afghans are also putting humanitarian work at risk because soldiers are blurring the lines between combat and aid, the 11 agencies said in a joint report, "Caught in the Conflict."

Plans to deploy some 21,000 extra U.S. troops this year against a growing Taliban insurgency may punish ordinary Afghans further as violence is expected to rise and spread to new areas, its author said.

"There is a risk that increased operations could not only lead to more civilian deaths, but also increase displacement and reduce access to essential services," Matt Waldman, head of policy for Oxfam in Afghanistan, told a news conference.

The one-third rise in civilian deaths caused by pro-government forces last year had generated "widespread resentment" and undermined support for the international presence, the report said, but problems go beyond casualties.

There is not enough openness or accountability when military missions go wrong, the report warned, and there are worries about detainees who are held for long periods without charge or trial.

There are even some children among the 600 held prisoner at the United States' Bagram airbase, said Palwasha Aabed, Child Protection Manager at Save the Children UK, which also contributed to the report.

On top of this, compensation systems are confusing and vary between the nations in the coalition, so civilians caught up in fighting often feel they have no access to justice.

"In their eyes, the perpetrators of abuses can operate with impunity," the report said.

It also criticized "tribal empowerment" programs, saying they are misguided, will create dangerous militia, and possibly hand arms to Taliban sympathizers or local bandits even as the central government seeks to disarm warlords and their gunmen.

"We cannot say that Taliban militants will not be in there, because there are hidden elements," said M.H. Mayar from the ACBAR grouping of Afghan non-governmental organisations.

"Weapons will be in the wrong hands, that is our concern."

One of the biggest worries raised by the report. however, is how the military is blurring the boundary between troops and aid workers, making NGOs more vulnerable and undermining their efforts to bring assistance to the neediest.

Some soldiers drive white unmarked vehicles conventionally used by humanitarian organizations, the report said.

More subtly, aid is being spent on projects that further military aims, rather than purely on the basis of which people and areas are most deserving, eroding trust in humanitarian groups and belief that foreign forces are acting in good faith.

"We are seeing the expansion of 'hearts and minds' activities, particularly those which are designed not to address need, but for force protection purposes. We believe that is not consistent with humanitarian principles," Waldman added.