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By Mark Joyce
On 28 July Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced its intention to pull out of Afghanistan after a 24-year presence in the country. It was a desperate move for an organisation fiercely proud of its reputation for operating in environments where other aid agencies and NGOs fear to tread. MSF’s withdrawal provides further evidence of the accelerating breakdown of Afghanistan’s internal security ahead of the October presidential elections.
The precipitate causes of MSF’s decision are clear. After a steady increase in the targeted killing of aid workers in Afghanistan through 2003 and the first half of 2004, five MSF workers were ambushed and killed whilst travelling in a clearly marked vehicle on 2 June. The Afghan Provisional Government has since proven unable or unwilling to make any progress towards finding and punishing the killers. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), still barricaded within its Kabul and Kunduz strongholds, remains unable to offer any significant help to those aid agencies operating in the more volatile provinces. With the Taliban and some warlords characterising MSF and other foreign aid workers as agents of American occupation, and hence fair game for attack, further deaths would be virtually inevitable if they were to remain in Afghanistan for very much longer.
Beyond these immediate causes, MSF’s withdrawal must also be seen against the background of a broader change in the dynamics of civil-military interaction in post-conflict scenarios. This shift has manifested itself in Afghanistan over the last 18 months, and is in part a consequence of the controversial US military policy of exploiting humanitarian aid as an operational tool, for example by withholding deliveries of food and medicine to villages until information is provided on Taliban and al-Qaeda movements. More fundamentally, however, the increased vulnerability of agencies such as MSF reflects a failure by both military and non-military actors fully to engage with the new challenges of supporting the peace in a ‘transformed’ operational environment.
The unprecedented rapidity with which conventional military opponents were defeated in Afghanistan (and, subsequently, in Iraq) presents new challenges in terms of installing the peace support structures and agencies that in previous conflicts would have been phased in over a period of many weeks or months. Military commanders have consistently frustrated aid agencies and NGOs with their refusal to accept that the demands of neutrality prevent them from submitting to the integrated military command structures and networks on which transformed operations are based. The aid agencies and NGOs, for their part, have often failed to recognise that a creative and open-minded engagement with military transformation might yield hugely beneficial results for their own operations. Whilst the withdrawal of MSF from Afghanistan is undoubtedly a disaster for those thousands of people on the ground who have benefited from their assistance, it must be hoped that it will at least act as a catalyst for a more constructive civil-military dialogue on the management of peace support and stabilization operations in the future.