Keeping one eye open for bandits, avoiding landmines, evading disease – there are few civilian occupations fraught with the same risks faced by the aid workers of today. These brave and often highly qualified practitioners confront dangers every day, in some of the most rugged and underdeveloped locations in the world. The recent events at Kunduz hospital, when an American AC-130 tore into a hospital killing 22 medical staff and many patients, brought into sharp focus the risks faced by those within this profession. The incident, a case of what appears to have been a tragic lapse in communication, highlights the fragile yet essential relationship between security forces and NGOs. In Kunduz, it is said that the hospital was being monitored by intelligence assets for weeks prior to the attack, and so its peaceful purpose should have been abundantly clear. And yet, despite Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) regularly updating the international security forces on the coordinates of the site, it was targeted with precision and without mercy.
The defenders of the military will, with a degree of insensitivity and perhaps unfairly, point to the operational dangers of working in a fragile security environment. Dangers that they expect to face themselves. They may go on to question the real practicality of taking in anyone in need, that to take in combatants, without hesitation or examination, is not viable and puts the organisation at risk in asymmetric warfare. In reality, for the overall security and long-term progress of a region, the two bodies must endeavour to work in harmony. In the case of Afghanistan, and in other cases before, one cannot work without the other.
Afghanistan ranks as the most dangerous country to be an aid worker in 2015, a position it has retained from the previous year. According to some commentators, Somalia held this dubious title a year before that. It is a country that has suffered enormously in recent times and has been in constant need of international aid since. The country received £107m of aid from the UK, in 2013. The U.S. Department of State and USAID pumped a combined $235.32m into the country last year. Similarly to Afghanistan, the complex tribal make-up of past and present day has hampered peacekeeping operations and more expansive plans for the country’s long-term development, and have thus received the tag of ‘failed states’.
In the 1990s, after averting a famine with the potential for claiming millions of lives, the UN mandated further military involvement to secure the humanitarian operation in Somalia. It soon became clear that international agencies and forces were tampering with a ferocious tribal balance in the country, whereby there could be only one victor. The U.S took a leading role in protecting the humanitarian operation and most significantly, targeted the lawless individuals orchestrating chaos across the country.
In 1993, while Black Hawks hovered over the country’s capital and black-helmeted men of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) roped into the cavernous warrens of the city hunting the men who were threatening peace in the country, NGOs desperately sought to repair a tired and broken country. Food was distributed and, federal facilities started to shape up, while sports facilities began to appear even in remote towns of the largely forgotten north. Many NGOs, including Médecins Sans Frontières, set up shop in the capital. Its deep-sea port, availability of skilled workers and the proximity to the UN-secured airport made it the obvious choice. It was, however, this proximity to usable infrastructure and critical resources that brought aid agencies into contact with international security forces determined to pacify it.
Scott Peterson recorded the events that followed while serving as a journalist in the country. In the early hours of the morning on the 30 August, 1993, Special Forces Operators snaked down onto the roof of a building suspected of harbouring fugitives. They kicked through the door and opened fire. Journalists looked on curiously from a neighbouring rooftop, wondering why the office of UN Development Programme had been targeted, as members of its staff were bundled to the floor and hogtied (Peterson, 2001). On the 2 September, the building of another aid organisation, this time the compound of World Concern, was to have a surprise visit from Special Forces troops. This time, however, realising their mistake and much to their embarrassment, the Rangers involved instead opted for the traditional route of entry, with a polite knock on the door and a request to search the compound (Peterson, 2001). The frequency with which NGO employees were being wrongly targeted became such a point of frustration that some Médecins Sans Frontières workers even sardonically offered to take Rangers on a tour of all the offices in the area (Peterson, 2001). The commanding officer of the operation would later claim that the UN employees had been in an “off-limits area” with “contraband” on their person (Bowden, 2002, p.43).
The Somalia experience was clearly challenging for more reasons than botched raids by security forces. At a time where any Somali carrying a United Nations identity card faced a grim fate from local gangs, it was always going to be a painful mission. Putting the case of Kunduz and Somalia aside for a moment, cooperation with security forces and charitable organisations can work, but it must be accepted that mistakes are inevitable. Catastrophes like the strike on Kunduz are avoidable and similar lapses can be mitigated. The extent to which NGOs cooperate with the ‘peacekeeping operation’ does not always reflect the efforts shown by MSF in Kunduz. Furthermore, periodically providing the security forces with locational coordinates is certainly useful, but it cannot replace regular face-to-face liaison between these very different bodies. Military forces must convince NGOs that they respect the work of these charitable organisations and are not using them for their own ends. There were reports that security forces had been travelling under the guise of aid workers in Afghanistan which likely contributed to the high volume of attacks on aid organisations. NGOs should also realise that maintaining security in the region works to their benefit. MSF chose to cease operations in Afghanistan after 5 of its staff were shot in 2004. They cited the failure of the authorities to bring those responsible to justice as one reason for leaving. Despite this, MSF refuse to intervene or take side with any ‘government’ to maintain their political neutrality, even if it affects efforts to secure the areas they work in.
NGOs work under independent guidelines set by their own organisations. They quite rightly fight tooth and nail to maintain their political neutrality and will not have their objectives dictated to them, although at times this may be unavoidable with some organisations receiving government funding. Nevertheless, this often conflicting approach will inevitably cause friction with the security forces in the area as they pursue separate, but ultimately linked, objectives. NGOs and the military must accept that their own objectives are often intertwined, and that only through better cooperation can trust be restored for the betterment of the countries they are endeavouring to help.
Bowden, Mark, (2000) Black Hawk Down. London: Corgi.
Peterson, Scott (2001) Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan, And Rwanda. New York: Routledge.
Hugh Coates is a recent graduate of Southampton University having studied History. He is particularly interested in American foreign affairs. His areas of specific knowledge include: covert operations and intelligence, particularly in the North African and Middle Eastern region.
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*Cover image ‘Military Police Practice Medical Evacuations‘ by DVIDSHUB