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KABUL, 25 February (IRIN) - There's a strong smell of fresh paint as you walk through the corridors of the Rabia Balkhi Women's Hospital in the capital, Kabul, these days. Two months ago, the strongest smell was the leaking toilets on the second floor of Afghanistan's main women's hospital.
Col Rene Dolder of the United States Coalition's civil affairs team, which is overseeing the refurbishment of the hospital, says the stench used to hit them as soon as they walked in. "You wouldn't have brought anyone in to get their fingernails clipped," he told IRIN in Kabul.
The US $250,000 upgrade is just one of many humanitarian projects US Coalition forces have been involved in since its troops drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan in late 2001. And that help is set to expand with the planned deployment of 12 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) throughout Afghanistan over the next year. The first PRT office was opened with a staff of about 50 in Gardez, in eastern Afghanistan last month.
But the move continues to draw criticism from aid agencies, which say the military has no real experience in such projects, will endanger the lives of NGO workers and is more interested in a quick public relations exercise to win over the Afghan people. Other critics argue NGOs and locals are a much cheaper solution to reconstruction than bringing in the military.
Rafael Robillard, the executive coordinator of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghanistan Relief (ACBAR), told IRIN in Kabul that undertaking aid work traditionally carried out by NGOs risked the Coalition losing focus on its main task, which was to provide security. "I can understand why the military forces are involved in these things. The main reason is to conquer the hearts and minds of the people. Mainly to stop being shot at, so they are seen as the good guys. For an army it's better to do this than kick in doors and insult people," he said.
ACBAR, which is an umbrella group for more than 70 NGOs in Afghanistan, is concerned that the PRTs are going to work while the Coalition is still at war in the country. "On one hand we hit you. On the other we heal you," Robillard suggested.
While appreciating that the presence of the teams may increase "ambient security" in some regions, ACBAR would have preferred this to be done by the International Security Assistance Force, which was mandated by the United Nations.
His strong concerns about the Coalition plan included the fact that the military may not provide its aid on an impartial basis, a principle that remains a cornerstone of NGO work. "Basically, NGOs are here to save lives, and this is an army in action that is pursuing the bad guys and at war with a sector of the Afghan population."
In addition, there was a real concern that PRT activities, probably supported by armed troops, would blur the lines between who was a "gentle aid worker and who was a combatant collecting intelligence".
ACBAR favours the Coalition concentrating on training the Afghan army, constraining warlords, disarming militias, and if it had to build something, then it should be government offices or things like prisons. "Leave the NGOs to build kindergartens. Some things are better left to professionals," Robillard asserted.
In addition to regional centres in Gardez and Herat, officials will open offices in Bamyan, Kunduz, Mazar-e Sharif, Jalalabad and Kandahar. All the centres are expected to be open by the summer. The staff could total about 500. Some might be led and partially staffed by coalition partners such as Britain.
Col Lindsay Gudridge, the director of the Civil Military Coordination Centre in Kabul, told IRIN that US troops had a moral obligation to provide humanitarian help in areas affected by conflict, and it was something it had done since World War II.
"We are on a mission to provide a sustainable peace and help the government of Afghanistan," Gudridge said. What the Coalition wanted was greater cooperation with NGOS in such areas as information sharing. He understood the NGOs' need to remain neutral and did not want to step on anyone's toes. "Because with all the things that there are to do in Afghanistan it would be a terrible shame to waste any of the money and talents that are here."
The Coalition was seeking to double its civil affairs budget in Afghanistan to US $12 million of Defence Department money this year. However, this would not mean an increase in the 350 civil affairs team members, nor would soldiers currently hunting Al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants be pulled away to build schools.
While recognising the need for NGOs to often work at arms' length from the military, Gudridge said that as conflict subsided in Afghanistan he hoped it would be possible to have the same relationship as NGOs had with peacekeepers in other areas of the world.
He used an example of an area needing a school, saying the military could build a bridge to give access to a community, thereby allowing an NGO to go and build that school. The presence of the military would allow NGOs to move into areas that had until now been difficult to operate in because of insecurity.
But NGOs remain unconvinced by the military's talk of cooperation, and still have serious concerns about the safety of both their workers and the communities where the PRTs are to be put in. Anita Anastacio, the Mercy Corps' representative in central Afghanistan, said there were cases in Somalia where whole communities had been wiped out after accepting US military aid.
"Communities say today: 'Who cares who does the job and who gives us the money?' But what happens tomorrow if the government changes or the Taliban come back? What happens to those communities?" she asked.
Paul O'Brien, a spokesman for international NGO CARE, told IRIN in Kabul that the military's skills were in providing security, so it should concentrate on providing a safe environment where the government and NGOs could carry out reconstruction work. "What we don't want [is] this to become is a massive political exercise," he said.
Meanwhile, the UN is acting as mediator between the two groups. Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the spokesman for the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, said that for the good of the Afghan people, cooperation was needed between all groups. "I think that any initiatives aimed at improving conditions here are, of course, welcome," he told IRIN in Kabul. However he understood the concerns of NGOs, and suggested that the military perform tasks NGOs were unable to undertake.
But behind the scenes, some UN officials share the fears of the NGOs. They feel unable to put their hands or heads up, however, because many rely on US funding for their work, and to criticise the Coalition would be seen as an attack on the Afghan government, which publicly backs the American initiative.
Most Afghans are happy to see signs of reconstruction, regardless of who is involved. At Rabia Balkhi Women's Hospital, nobody is joining in the battle between the "bunny huggers" and the "Provincial Rambo Teams" as the two sides have been dubbed by some. Dolder said the project had given jobs to lots of people and put food on the tables of many Afghans. "We're not here to take jobs away from NGOs. We're here to make their job a little easier."
The hospital's director, Dr Nasrim Oryakhil, told IRIN that in the nine months she had been in charge, she had been trying to get help to upgrade the hospital. She did not care who provided the money or who oversaw the construction, so long as facilities were created that helped the women of Afghanistan.
"After this all our problems will be solved," she said, adding that the Coalition team had been excellent and everything it had promised was being done to a very high standard. "We very much appreciate all the help we have been given."
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