KABUL, Afghanistan — At least 100 relief workers in Afghanistan have been killed so far this year, far more than in any previous year, prompting a debate within humanitarian organizations about whether American military strategy is putting them and the Afghans they serve at unnecessary risk. Most of the victims worked for aid contractors employed by NATO countries, with fewer victims among traditional nonprofit aid groups.
The difference in the body counts of the two groups is at the heart of a question troubling the aid community: Has American counterinsurgency strategy militarized the delivery of aid?
That doctrine calls for making civilian development aid a major adjunct to the military push. To do that there are Provincial Reconstruction Teams in 33 of 34 provinces, staffed by civilians from coalition countries to deliver aid projects. The effort is enormous, dominated by the Americans; the United States Agency for International Development alone is spending $4 billion this year, most of it through the teams.
The so-called P.R.T.’s work from heavily guarded military compounds and are generally escorted by troops from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. Traditional aid workers worry that the P.R.T.’s and the development companies working for them are compromising their neutrality. Oxfam and 28 other charitable groups signed a report last month, “Nowhere to Turn,” that denounces the practice, saying it puts civilians at greater risk.
“In many instances, where P.R.T. projects have been implemented in insecure areas in an effort to win ‘hearts and minds,’ they put individuals and communities at risk,” the Oxfam report said. Michiel Hofman, the head of Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan, said, “This assistance forces the beneficiaries to choose sides, and many people in the disputed areas do not want to choose sides.”
The military and its NATO civilian partners disagree. Earl Gast, the mission director for U.S.A.I.D. in Afghanistan, said the United Nations and the International Security Assistance Force had agreed on a clear distinction and clear rules regarding humanitarian aid — “that it can’t be militarized and it can’t be politicized.” “Those are rules that we follow,” Mr. Gast said.
Part of the problem is the definition of humanitarian aid. Traditionally it means life-saving emergency assistance, but the distinction is often unclear. Providing medical care for disaster victims, for instance, is clearly humanitarian, but building a medical clinic for war victims could be considered either humanitarian or developmental aid, properly within the scope of the civil-military effort.
Further complicating matters, many traditional relief groups have expanded their efforts into development work, although they take pains to ensure that their projects are not connected to the government or the military. But the military and its supporters say traditional aid groups have neither the capacity nor the willingness to bring large-scale aid programs to conflict areas. This has resulted in a reliance on private development companies, most of them profit-making, to deliver the aid programs paid for by NATO countries.
“Someone has to go into the areas where the war is being fought,” Mr. Gast said. “We recognize that some N.G.O.’s don’t have the capacity and some of them don’t want to, but there are other willing partners who can go,” he said, using the abbreviation for nongovernmental organizations.
A Dec. 1 report by Refugees International was highly critical. “U.S.A.I.D.’s use of development contractors and frequent embeds with the military have dangerously blurred humanitarian principles by associating such programs with a party to the conflict,” the group wrote.
Among the contracted aid groups working for coalition government programs, which nearly always employ armed guards and work in fortified compounds or from military bases, the body count has been particularly severe. Eighty aid contractors employed by the United States Agency for International Development were killed and 220 wounded from January through early November of this year. (In the same period, 410 American soldiers and Marines died.)
The aid contractors were attacked on average 55 times a month — a sevenfold increase over 2009, Mr. Gast said. By contrast, 20 people employed by charitable and humanitarian groups, which refuse to use armed guards or work with the military, were killed during the first nine months of this year.
Sixty-four charitable aid workers were kidnapped by insurgents this year. All were released unharmed, usually after negotiations involving local community leaders who vouched for them, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office. One U.S.A.I.D. contractor who was kidnapped, Linda Norgrove, was killed during a botched rescue attempt by American Special Forces troops.