Humanitarian work must be de-linked from the military and the political process in Afghanistan, aid agency Christian Aid has said.
"Over the past four years the involvement of international military forces in humanitarian and development work has made it impossible for NGOs and UN agencies to occupy space between the warring parties" said Robin Greenwood head of Christian Aid's Asia and Middle East division.
"Increasingly NGO work is threatened by communities who see it as part of someone else’s agenda."
In the south of the country, where US-led Coalition forces are at war with Taliban fighters, the effort to 'win hearts and minds' often overlaps with the work of development agencies. This makes it hard for local people to differentiate between aid workers and the military.
The blurred distinction has repercussions for the safety of aid workers across the country.
"When communities see military people driving unmarked vehicles or acting as aid workers, they are confused," says Serena Di Matteo, Christian Aid’s country manager in Afghanistan. "They don’t know who is doing what."
"There are large areas where security won’t permit us to work safely, so we can’t simply work wherever there are communities in need," she added. "This is not merely a matter of getting caught in the crossfire. There are parts of the country which are simply no-go zones for our partners and staff."
Christian Aid wants a review of the military operations to clarify the difference between military and NGO approaches to aid. It says community acceptance of civilian aid workers should not be jeopardised by the military “invading” the humanitarian space.
"The population here needs a lot of support," added Serena Di Matteo. "Outside of Africa, this is the poorest country in the world. Almost half the population (42 per cent ) lives below the poverty line.
"Our work in Afghanistan is solely about tackling poverty and empowering poor and marginalised people to improve the conditions of their own lives. War fuels poverty and injustice. Security undermines development and reconstruction. In Afghanistan decades of conflict have created a cycle, where war’s destabilising bi-products themselves fuel continuing violence."
It’s a cycle Christian Aid’s in-country staff and local partners cannot break alone, but this vital work cannot wait until the gunfire is over.
Kidnapping of aid workers is now a major threat, as our Country Manager acknowledges. "It’s good business for anti-government elements and criminal groups who can use people to gain leverage with Governments, to raise money to run their operations."
Yet large swathes of the Afghan population are clear that they do not want the international community to abandon them altogether. Without aid agencies, people fear things would go back to the way they were under the Taliban.
"Christian Aid has a track record in Afghanistan, we have stayed through three regime changes – we’re in it for the long haul and intend to stay on in whatever way we can," said Di Matteo.
"If all of a sudden all aid workers decided to pull out, where would that leave people living here? It would mean that all the work we have already done is wasted. We cannot abandon what we are doing half way through."
But the continued success of effective humanitarian work is only feasible with clear distinctions between military projects, and assistance from development agencies.
Robin Greenwood added: "The security forces have a vital role to play in ensuring that ordinary Afghan women and men can go about their daily lives and build their future free from the threat and reality of violence. But the needs of the country are vast and complex."
"The solution must combine military activity with political efforts and humanitarian initiatives. The political settlement needs to involve a wide range of stakeholders from inside and outside Afghanistan, with only one precondition: that they uphold the security, dignity and rights of all Afghans."