AFGHANISTAN: “Humanitarian aid” not something the military can do – experts

Photo: Chris Halton/British Army
The distribution of aid by soldiers is not impartial as it promotes the image of one set of belligerents, experts say

KABUL, 26 January 2010 (IRIN) – Belligerent parties in Afghanistan should not call the aid they distribute “humanitarian”, because this is to confuse neutral, impartial and needs-based assistance with “hearts and minds” projects designed to achieve specific ends, experts say.

Indeed, such activities can jeopardize the safety and security of the communities receiving this aid as well as bona fide aid workers, they say.

On 16 January Afghan and US forces conducted a “humanitarian aid mission” in volatile Paktia Province to revive local people’s confidence in the Afghan army and police.

“The objective of the mission was to help build confidence in the ANA [Afghan National Army] and ANP [Afghan National Police] as institutions, which had been undermined in the eyes of locals due to both real-life corruption and Taliban misinformation campaigns to exaggerate the problems,” NATO said in a press release on 22 January.

During the “mission” soldiers distributed 100 bags of food, 100 bags of school materials and 200 hand-crank radios to people in the villages of Sar Mast Khyl, Pateh Khyl and Rahman Khyl.

“The whole purpose behind today was to let the ANA and ANP show a different face to the populous, to say ‘hey, we’re here to help you guys’,” Troy Arrowsmith, a US military officer, is quoted in the press release as saying.

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District 12 Kabul (Nov 2009)

Wrong term?

Humanitarian aid must be neutral, impartial and independent and should be a response to real needs. However, distribution of aid by the military in Afghanistan is not impartial as it promotes the image of one set of belligerents, experts say.

“It is better for NATO to avoid using the term ‘humanitarian’ in describing its delivery of aid, when such activities are part of an overall military strategy to win the ‘hearts and mind’ of the local population and defeat the Taliban,” Edward Burke, a researcher at the Madrid-based think-tank FRIDE, told IRIN.

Similar criticism has been aired by Antonio Donini, a humanitarian expert and senior researcher at the Feinstein International Center: “In my view the military should refrain from the direct provision of aid and in any case they should not call it ‘humanitarian’.”

He said radios could benefit communities which have little access to information but the distribution of radio sets by the military could hardly be considered a humanitarian activity.

According to the civil military guidelines which were endorsed by pro-government Afghan and foreign forces and aid agencies in August 2008, military actors can only engage in humanitarian activities as a “last resort” and when there is no civilian actor on the ground to deliver assistance. The guidelines also prohibit the use of humanitarian assistance for political and military gain or relationship-building.

“It would be better if they use the term ‘stability operations’ to describe their operations as this is clearly military, or at least civil-military, parlance and cannot be confused with activities by conventional intergovernmental or non-governmental humanitarian organizations,” said Burke of FRIDE.

IRIN was unable to obtain any comment from NATO’s press office in Kabul.

Photo: Ebadi/WFP
Humanitarian assistance by aid agencies is usually neutral, impartial, independent and needs-based


The military’s involvement in humanitarian and development activities not only blurs traditional boundaries between civil and military activities but jeopardizes the safety of aid workers and beneficiaries, aid agencies contend.

“The military emphasis on using aid to ‘win hearts and minds’ and promote security as part of their stabilization strategy is misplaced and even counter-productive in some instances,” the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) said in a 2009 report.

“The involvement of [the] military in development activities results in focusing more on short-term results at the expense of long-term objectives and has caused harm to civilians by drawing them into the conflict,” six consortiums of local and international NGOs and civil society organizations said in a statement on 21 January.

Over the past few years aid agencies have lost access to large swathes of the country due to insecurity and attacks on aid workers and humanitarian convoys.

Where aid agencies cannot reach and respond to needs “stability operations” should be initiated by pro-government Afghan and foreign forces, said FRIDE’s Edward Burke.

“The delivery of aid should be reverted as soon as possible to the control of civilian humanitarian agencies.”




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