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Dangers Limiting Aid Groups’ Ability to Work Outside Kabul

August 9, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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After a group of 10 aid workers and their guides were killed in Afghanistan, Jeffrey Brown gets the latest on the slayings and the dangerous work of nonprofits in the country from Barmak Pazhwak of the U.S. Institute of Peace and New York Times reporter Rod Nordland.

JEFFREY BROWN: For more, we’re joined from Kabul by New York Times reporter Rod Nordland, and here in our studio, Barmak Pazhwak, a program officer at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where he manages grants for aid organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He formally worked on development issues in Afghanistan for the U.N.

Rod Nordland, starting with you, so, what’s known at this point about who might have carried out these killings?

ROD NORDLAND, The New York Times: Well, we just know that the Taliban and also another insurgent group, Hezb-e-Islami, have both claimed that they carried it out.

It sounds plausible that it was done for political reasons. But the police haven’t ruled out the possibility that it was just a robbery or just a gang of fanatics with no motive that is clear at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: The one survivor, an Afghan driver, is being held, I gather. Is there a question about whether he was involved, or is that just for questioning at this point?

ROD NORDLAND: I think it’s just for questioning, but they are holding him. They held him earlier up in the area with the local police. Now they’re holding him here in Kabul.

I think it’s just a precaution. He’s the only survivor. There were two other Afghans, and they were killed. So, I think they want to be sure they’re satisfied that — just what happened. The group that he worked for, the International Assistance Mission, feels confident that — that he wasn’t involved in any way. He’s worked for them for four years. And they know him well and trust him.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Rod, you were there today to talk to the people in the group, and including the leader of the group. What did you learn from them today, any more about — about some of the people involved and what they were doing?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, I think — first of all, I don’t think there’s any doubt at all that they were not proselytizing. They weren’t Christian missionaries trying to convert Muslims, which you know is a crime here and was the reason that — that the Taliban cited for justifying their murders.

But, at the same time, there — I think there’s a little bit of soul-searching going on, wondering if they did the right thing. And they did discuss before they went whether it was safe or not, whether it was wise to have so many foreigners in an area where one hardly ever sees foreigners.

So, there was obviously some discussion about that. And — and, finally, they seem determined to stay here. They have been here since 1966, and they seem determined to stay on in some form.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Pazhwak, you have worked with a number of groups over there. Give us some context. How typical was the work of this group in what they were doing and the specific mission that they were involved with?

BARMAK PAZHWAK, U.S. Institute of Peace: As we heard, the International Assistance Mission, they operated in Afghanistan since 1966.

They’re a bit different from traditional aid groups, in the sense that they not only worked in Afghanistan, but they also practically lived in Afghanistan. They had their families…

JEFFREY BROWN: Lived there.

BARMAK PAZHWAK: They have their families there. They have their kids who were trained and schooled in Afghanistan. And the most important thing about this group is that they — before doing any kind of project work, they used to learn the culture and the language and then start working.

They work very closely with Afghan nationals, and they pride themselves for closely working with local communities. And, in many senses, they were received very warmly by local communities all over Afghanistan. They didn’t only work in Kabul, or they didn’t have an office only in Kabul, but they had offices all over Afghanistan in most major cities.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, presumably, before they would go on a mission, they would work with the locals in the area to try to ensure safe passage? How would that work?

BARMAK PAZHWAK: Most often. They used to rely on local contacts. They used to rely on local partners for passage through difficult areas in the country.

They stayed throughout the course of civil war in Afghanistan, and, most notably, they stayed in Afghanistan during the Taliban era. And they — their offices were open. And they were able to work and deliver services.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we heard Rod Nordland talk about the question of the proselytizing, which they were accused of by the Taliban. But, as he said, this is — this is against the rules there. I mean, what are the ground rules under which a group like this, which is a Christian charity, would operate?

BARMAK PAZHWAK: There were registered in Afghanistan as an NGO. For an NGO to register itself, they should non-political, non-governmental, of course, non-political, and they shouldn’t — not for profit. And they shouldn’t discriminate on any basis against any group in Afghanistan. And they should abide by the Afghan constitution.

Those are the basic elements to be able to register as an NGO.

JEFFREY BROWN: And one more for context. Are there still a lot of aid groups operating in Afghanistan, and what kind of work are they mostly doing at this point?

BARMAK PAZHWAK: There are quite a large group of NGOs operating in Afghanistan. They are both international NGOs and also Afghan NGOs. And they’re doing a lot of work.

They are working from issues centered on rights, like human rights, women rights, to micro-finance, health — provision of health, agriculture, de-mining, education, everything.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Rod Nordland, given that this took place in what had been considered, I gather, relatively safe area, what kind of concerns are you hearing there now about the Taliban, whether this is a signal of reaching out to other parts of the country or other kinds of operations?

ROD NORDLAND: Well, I mean, yes and no it was a safe area. It was an area they had been in before safely. And they went with local guides, local people they knew. When they were with those people, they were indeed safe.

And it was when those people let them go, and they went out through Badakhshan Province, an area that they had not traversed before, that they were set upon. Badakhshan Province, on the other hand, is considered a relatively safe part of Afghanistan. And I think it just shows that, really, increasingly, no place in Afghanistan is safe in the rural areas, outside of Kabul and the immediate environs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you said, Rod, that the IAM leader today said that they will stay there. Presumably, they and other groups are getting more warnings about the potential risks and dangers of leaving the capital?

ROD NORDLAND: No, I think they will — they will stay here, but they won’t do things quite as cutting-edge as running an eye camp at — over a 16,000-foot pass into Hindu Kush. For one thing, they won’t have the resources. They won’t have somebody like Tom Little, who spoke Dari, who had local contacts, who had been there 30 years, and had medical skills.

So, they can’t easily replace that. They will do other kinds of projects. And they do quite a variety of things. But there are 1,500 NGOs working here. It’s an astonishing number. But a great deal of their work is done in the capital and a few other places that are safe. And, increasingly, they’re not getting out into these kinds of areas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is that what you see, Mr. Pazhwak, in terms of the ability of groups to operate, especially outside the capital?


Unfortunately, NGOs’ ability and capacity, due to security concentration, has been curtailed very much. They’re not able to perform as they used to do, and they’re not able to go to the places that people most need their help.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do they — and do they — are they able to work with the Afghan government at this point to try to do what they can? Or how does that work?

BARMAK PAZHWAK: There are — in some certain areas, like the provision of basic health or the National Solidarity Program, which is a rural development program, they are working in partnership with the Afghan government.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do we know if any of them are talking directly to the Taliban or insurgents in some areas to be provided safe passage?

BARMAK PAZHWAK: I’m not sure if there — if there are any of them talking directly to Taliban. There might be some local understanding on some certain issues.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you know about that, Rod Nordland, if there’s that kind of communication or even talk about that kind of direct communication?

ROD NORDLAND: The ICRC, for instance, the International Committee of the Red Cross, goes throughout Taliban areas. And they — and they do talk to the Taliban. They treat Taliban fighters like, you know, as part of their policy of neutrality and impartiality.

And they have been able to do that for the most without — without incident. But that’s fraying now. First of all, it’s not clear necessarily who you’re dealing with when you say Taliban. I mean, it’s a more complicated organization that has some divisions, younger commanders who are coming up who maybe don’t follow the guidance that they’re getting from the Quetta Shura to leave relief groups alone, which has been the case in the past.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rod, one — one last brief question. I gather some of the families of the Americans have asked that the bodies eventually be buried in Afghanistan. But some may — they may be flown to the U.S. for autopsies. What do you know about that?

ROD NORDLAND: That was what we heard earlier today. But then the American Embassy put a statement out later on, saying that the FBI is looking into whether or not they would bring the bodies back for autopsy.

So, I think — I think some of families or some of their loved ones feel very strongly that — that their roots were in Afghanistan. Some of these people raised entire families here, spent their whole lives here, pretty much their whole adult lives, and — and want to be buried here. And so I think there’s some — some discussion is going on about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Rod Nordland and Barmak Pazhwak, thank you both very much.