The murder of Gayle Williams in Kabul on Monday (October 20) follows a string of attacks on humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan this year. The first seven months have seen more than 120 attacks and the murder of 30 aid workers. A further 92 aid workers have been kidnapped. In August the Taliban murdered three foreign women and their Afghan driver in an ambush just outside Kabul, which was the bloodiest single attack on an international organisation in Afghanistan in re cent years. The four were working for the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee, which I worked for when I lived in the country.
The Taliban justify their attacks by claiming that the aid organisations are attempting to proselytise for Christianity, which is illegal in Afghanistan. A relatively high proportion of those killed have been women, and it is quite likely that the targeting of women is a deliberate policy. When I was working in Jalalabad in 2004, the Taliban blew up a bus of women election workers as part of their campaign to try to prevent women voting in that year’s presidential election. Girls’ schools are also regularly burnt to the ground because the Taliban object to the education of women.
The Taliban view aid workers as soft targets. We are unarmed and we tend not to accept military escorts, as that would affect our humanitarian status. However, it is impossible to do the job without going into the field and, although security precautions are taken, we are probably the simplest high-profile victim.
Targeting aid workers is also a good way to achieve a wider political objective of halting the reconstruction of the country and undermining the authority of its central government. Afghanistan is hugely dependent on international assistance and — unlike Iraq — there is still considerable support for the international presence. That support has shrunk in recent years, as many Afghans believe that most of the aid is not getting through to its intended recipients. The more the insurgents can isolate the international community from ordinary people, the easier it is to portray our presence as a straightforward occupation of their country. In fact, when they were in government, the Taliban relied heavily on the international humanitarian community to make up for their total neglect of social programmes. “God will provide” was Mullah Omar’s standard answer when asked about his government’s plans for healthcare and education. What he really meant was that he was leaving the task to international aid workers.
For most aid workers, political neutrality remains the best form of self-defence and the best way to gain access to crisis zones. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008
6 months ago