Afghanistan: NGOs raise concern over Coalition's aid work

ISLAMABAD, 14 January (IRIN) - A US-based NGO working in Afghanistan raised concern on Tuesday over the Coalition forces' engagement in reconstruction projects, saying it could have a negative impact on security levels, and that it was "not a substitute for security".
"Our main concern is that there is a security vacuum in Afghanistan, and despite promises made, the international community is not likely to address it in the near future," the advocacy coordinator for CARE International in Afghanistan,
Paul O'Brien, told IRIN from the capital, Kabul.

He referred to the US-dominated Coalition's shift in strategy, from purely hunting Taliban and Al-Qaeda members towards aid work. The Coalition is establishing Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), consisting of a modest number of combat troops, civil affairs soldiers and civilian US government officials. "We have a number of concerns over this. Our major one is that this prematurely distracts attention from the security situation," he added.

This view was supported and echoed by several large NGOs working in Afghanistan, including Mercy Corps International.

"We are working in areas which have had continuing security problems, and found that there is still definitely a security vacuum, which is getting worse. This not only compromises our ability to do our job but also the safety of staff," Cassandra Nelson, the senior spokeswoman for Mercy Corps-Afghanistan, told IRIN, in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

Nelson added that the knowledge and expertise held by aid workers was crucial in long-term sustainable development. "When we tackle reconstruction, we don't have the stigma of having carried guns," she noted.

She went on to point out, however, that there were areas where the military was suited to provide assistance, primarily in large-scale projects such as bridge reconstruction. "There is a bridge in the south of the country between Spin Buldak and Kandahar, which was bombed during the US-led strikes and is need of repair, but nothing has been done about this," she observed.

In a report published on Tuesday, CARE International suggested that "the Coalition should leave the coordination of reconstruction to the Afghan government, UN and other civilian aid agencies, and it should take all the necessary steps to ensure that communities, policy makers and the general public
do not confuse military and civilian-implemented assistance".

O'Brien stressed that there were security lapses throughout most of the country, which could only be addressed by international military forces. "If they move into the field of reconstruction then it [security] won't get the attention it
needs," he argued.

Asked whether the PRTs would be a good way of breaking down barriers between Coalition soldiers and local Afghans, he replied: "We have different reports on what the ultimate aim is of this strategy. They see this as an indirect way to
promote security by an on-the-ground presence. But if you look at the kind of numbers they are talking about, if you evaluate it as a security strategy it doesn't add up."

Between seven and 12 PRT teams are expected to be operational soon in up to 10 Afghan cities.

Commenting on security in the country, O'Brien said: "Reports show us that there has been a constant flow of security incidents in December, and more so recently in Kabul, than in previous months." However, he maintained that the capital was not a good indicator of security in Afghanistan, describing it as a very different peacekeeping situation. "There have been many incidents around the country," he said.

While commending efforts to rebuild and establish the national army, O'Brien said a lot more needed to be done to strengthen the force. "If you look at the numbers and rate of progress, it simply doesn't add up. It could take as long as 25 years to reach its minimum foresight," he warned. "We don't see an effective Afghan force in place in the next few years, and our concern is who is going to fill that gap in the meantime."


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