Killing of Aid Workers in Afghanistan Exposes the Dangers of Escalation

As the presumptive presidential candidates push plans to dispatch more troops to Afghanistan, the murders of four humanitarian aid workers is a tragic reminder of the futility of chasing military "victory." The Taliban claims credit for gunning down three Western women and their Afghan driver who worked for the International Rescue Committee, a respected New York-based humanitarian organization. Real "victory" in Afghanistan -- which may already be beyond reach -- lies in helping that hapless country reconstruct itself, the goal the slain aid workers risked their lives for.

It's true that more troops are needed to establish security so that civilians and aid workers can go about the business of reconstruction. That has been the case in Afghanistan since 2001. But "security" and "victory" are different objectives -- a distinction our leaders don't seem to grasp. In Afghanistan, the belated American pursuit of victory threatens to vanquish security altogether.

The Bush administration has been rightly criticized for failing to put "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan, a mistake it repeated in Iraq. Generals who advised that a massive army was needed to occupy Iraq were thinking about security. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, with his lean, mean Army and massive air power, was thinking about victory. The "mission accomplished" in Iraq was "victory" -- and everyone knows how enduring that was.

In Afghanistan, the Bush administration bombed the Taliban into the boondocks, announced victory and withdrew to Iraq. It left the International Security Assistance Force, and later NATO, to create an island of security in the capital for the newly installed Karzai government. It left the provinces in the hands of warlords. In the south and east, "defeated" Taliban melted into the civilian population or slipped over the border to regroup in Pakistan. Since the American victory, the Taliban have come back stronger every year, augmented by new recruits inspired by the American invasion of Iraq.

Nevertheless, international NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) went to work with Afghan civilians eager to rebuild the country. This was the moment -- in 2002 -- when boots on the ground, in massive numbers, to provide security would have made all the difference.

Without that security, Afghan and international aid workers became easy targets for harassment, kidnapping and murder. In 2003, 14 were killed by Taliban or al Qaeda operatives. In the first six months of 2004, another 37 were killed, including five staff members of Medecins Sans Frontieres who were ambushed in Badghis Province, an event that caused MSF to cease operations in Afghanistan. The death toll continued. Recently an umbrella organization representing 100 Afghan and international NGOs warned that insecurity might force them to curtail or discontinue their operations. A few days ago, after the murders of the four workers (a fifth was critically wounded), the International Rescue Committee announced the indefinite suspension of its programs in Afghanistan.

The IRC and MSF are not wimpy organizations. Just the opposite. Both specialize in bringing relief to people in the immediate aftermath of conflict or disaster, and both stick around to get needed services up and running on their own. Both work on health care; the IRC also works on water, sanitation, education and much more. (The young IRC women slain by the Taliban were working to bring disabled children into the country's mainstream education system.) The IRC, which has been delivering humanitarian aid for 75 years, had been working in Afghanistan for 20. The shutdown is a measure of the state of things.

It suggests that while putting more boots on the ground in Afghanistan may be urgent, it may also be too late to reverse the effects of years of neglect coupled with the scams of all those private "aid" and "security" contractors who pocketed taxpayer billions intended for Afghan aid and then went on to perfect their rackets in Iraq.

It also underscores the difference between the goal of aid organizations -- to bring relief and security to civilian populations -- and that of the military: victory at any cost. Having declared victory in Afghanistan seven years ago, the Bush administration botched the relief and reconstruction phase, just as it went on to do again in Iraq. Forget security. This is an administration that only does victory.

Or defeat. A British commander warned just days ago that without a serious commitment of additional Western troops soon, "we are looking at a Taliban victory." Perhaps that's why George W. Bush and John McCain insist so strongly on "winning" an American "victory." Maybe Bush is starting over: the Second American-Afghan War. (The British lost three Anglo-Afghan wars -- the last in 1919 -- before they gave up.) Condoleezza Rice vowed earlier this year that America will "fight to the last Talib."

As the belated war for victory intensifies, outnumbered American boots already on the ground call in hundreds of airstrikes that kill civilians and convert survivors to the anti-American cause of al Qaeda and the Taliban, making the death of that "last Talib" ever more distant. (U.S. and NATO forces do not record civilian deaths, but the Associated Press, using Afghan and international sources, reports civilian deaths in the thousands -- as does President Hamid Karzai, who weeps in public and pleads with the Bush administration to stop killing civilians.) Outraged Afghan parliamentarians are now drafting legislation to make foreign armies accountable to Afghan law for civilian deaths.

It's only fair to say that Bush and McCain -- and Barack Obama too -- also speak of "security," arguing that additional troops are needed to attain it. But what does security mean to them? McCain promises to "turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq." He says, "The success of the surge in Iraq shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan."

The "success" of the surge in Iraq, however, is measured mainly by the declining death toll among American soldiers. Grateful as we must be for every American soldier spared, we have to ask: What about the security of people who live there? More than 5 million Iraqis have fled from their homes. Millions are in exile. Millions may never go back. And because Iraq remains too dangerous a place for humanitarian organizations to work, they can aid Iraqi refugees only in exile.

For whom then is this policy a "success"? To whom has it brought "security"? And why in the world should we imagine that a similar surge in Afghanistan -- without drastic changes in purpose and policy -- will save its citizens, and those who would aid them, from the clash of opposing forces bent on victory, and the rain of bombs?


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