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Crisis region

At their own risk

by Gunda Wiegmann

In depth

Young girls raising demands in Nader Khan

Young girls raising demands in Nader Khan

Aid workers are normally left to themselves when their safety is at stake in Afghanistan. Weigh the situation, and make up your mind – that’s how they operate. Anyone who goes to Afghanistan has to be aware of the risks, and learn how to avoid them early on. [ By Gunda Wiegmann ]

There are many dangers for aid workers in Afghanistan. Diseases and road traffic accidents may result in death. When safety precautions for employees of civilian organisations are discussed, other security risks are typically considered: assassination attempts and kidnapping. It may be impossible to prevent such events, but there are a few ground rules nonetheless. One such rule is that civilian and military operations must be kept strictly separate; and that, of course, applies to German troops in Afghanistan too.

There have been many attempts to explain the necessity of the German armed forces’ mission in Afghanistan. For instance, Peter Struck, then defence minister, said when the mission began that soldiers at the Hindu Kush were defending Germany’s security. In newspaper reports, we often read of a “peace-corps mission in uniform” or a “military fire service”. Sometimes the troops are also referred to as an “armed body of technical assistance”. For me, however, the most absurd statement is that the Bundeswehr, the German army, is establishing security for aid agencies to be able to work.

In practice, it is quite different. Aid workers run away from the soldiers who, after all, are regarded as the main targets of suicide bombers and Taliban fighters – especially in the streets of Kabul. For that reason, most aid workers stay away from the troops, even though doing so is becoming increasingly difficult. The military often drive the same vehicles as the aid workers – white sports-utility vehicles.

Another reason to keep distance from the military is the “no arms policy”. Many civilian development agencies prohibit weapons on their compounds and offices. But enforcing this principle is not that easy. When I worked for a German NGO in Kabul, we once had a visit from a Bundeswehr officer. In accordance with our rules, he laid down his gun. But he did so behind the entrance gate, not in front of it. To outsiders – our neighbours, for example – it looked as if the visitor entered the compound armed. Civilian and military work are increasingly inter-connected, and, in my view, that is dangerous.

Of course, safety issues are difficult in general. In the end, no one can or wants to take full responsibility for a contingent of civilian staff. Constantly talking about the dangers may unnecessarily trigger a sense of insecurity, and must be avoided. Safety training, on the other hand, is definitely justified. I was on active service in a conflict zone for two years, but only attended a single security training – on how to deal with mines. More courses would have helped.

Across country in a convoy

In the field, the security precautions often look like this: you travel across the country in a convoy of at least two sports utility vehicles. That was obligatory when I was in Afghanistan. But there were differences here too. This safety regulation only applied to western foreigners – for Germans and Australians, for example. Afghans and their neighbours, Pakistanis or Tajiks, travelled through the country by taxi. Personally, I would have preferred to use this means of public transport, keeping a low profile.

It makes sense to attract as little attention as possible, as an incident in Kabul illustrated when unrest broke out there in May 2006. A military vehicle of the international mission in Afghanistan had run over a boy. Infuriated people rampaged for days on end, attacking the offices of foreign agencies. Our office’s driver saved us. When the mob came, he stood at the corner of the street and told them the building “only” belonged to an Afghan. As a result, the incensed crowd went away without taking any action. We were saved by the loyalty of our local employee and anonymity – we had removed the name plate of the organisation from the building earlier.

Many people now maintain that it is becoming more and more dangerous in Afghanistan. I personally did not feel this was the case. In my opinion, the security situation has not changed that much, but rather the perception of it did. Safety regulations were constantly being tightened, there were always warnings. When I worked for another organisation, and no longer received these reports, I felt safer.

In the event of an actual assault or kidnapping, a curfew is imposed immediately. In this context, preventive security measures, such as trust-building measures, would be far more important. Learning the local language could be one such measure. In a newspaper interview, a woman working for a German political foundation once put it as follows: a good and friendly relationship with Afghan neighbours offers more security than any high barbed-wire fence can.