Last year, 122 aid workers were killed, while 138 were kidnapped or injured while on duty, marking the highest toll on record and making 2008 the deadliest year ever for aid workers.
In a recent study conducted by the Center on International Cooperation (CIC), “Providing Aid in Insecure Environments“, the authors note that attacks on aid workers have surged in the last three years, with NGO international staff and UN local contractors being the most vulnerable.
Presently, Afghanistan has the second-highest rate of incident, behind only Sudan.
“While most attacks in Sudan are attributed to common banditry, in Afghanistan…criminality has colluded with political forces pursuing national (and in the case of al-Qaeda, global) aims.” The attacks in Afghanistan reflects a growing resentment towards foreign entities, with the delineation between soldiers and humanitarian aid workers becoming increasingly blurred.
Motivation for these attacks have also shifted in recent years towards symbolic and strategic incentives, leaving aid workers with little immunity in conflict-ridden countries. The report states that “to perpetrators in these areas, targeting aid organizations can gain them access to economic resources, remove a perceived threat to control over a local area and/or make a potent political statement.”
In 2008, politically-driven attacks accounted for nearly half the incidents, as aid workers are increasingly viewed as political actors. The reports sumises that “aid organizations are being attacked not just because they are perceived to be cooperating with Western political actors, but because they are percieved as wholly a part of the Western agenda.”
Afghanistan was the largest recipient of Canadian aid in 2008, with a greater emphasis being placed on reconstruction and development for the war-torn country. It is clear, however, that the Afghanistan military campaign and humanitarian aid efforts are inextricably linked in the eyes of the local insurgency and resultingly, aid workers are increasingly targeted by attacks.
In an article for the National Post, Emma Batha reports that aid workers fear that this trend will only worsen in 2009. Abby Stoddard, a CIC fellow and one of the authors of the report, agrees. “Based on the number of incidents we’re seeing already in this quarter, I think that’s a correct assessment,” she said.
It is clear that the war in Afghanistan has far-reaching effects that extend beyond the battlefield and have altered the dynamics governing international humanitarian aid. The Canadian government must now reconsider the implications of their involvement in Afghanistan. The presence of foreign armies have only ignited the anger and resentment of insurgency groups, leading to the disintegration of the distinctions between civilian and soldier and widening the scope of conflict.
The increased targeting of aid workers only reinforces the fact that Canada must reexamine its military policy and decide whether its tactics and strategies are effective, or if they simply contribute to a greater cycle of violence.