Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Aid Workers and the Military

Thomas Ruttig 4 min

Let’s start 2010 with something positive: German chancellor Angela Merkel commended the work of civilian aid workers in Afghanistan in her New Year address, before mentioning policemen and soldiers.

That was an interesting and long overdue accent in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s New Year TV address: She commended the ‘many civilian helpers, the policemen and our soldiers’ who serve ‘risking their lives’ in many places, amongst them in Afghanistan. In this sequence – civilians first (the German originalhere).

We have waited for such a recognition for a long time – with all the dominating talk about the military side of things: the US ‘surge’, the US pressure on NATO allies to increase their troop strengths, too and, in Germany, the discussion about the fatal and misguided air attack on two fuel tankers hijacked by Taleban in Kunduz on 4 September 2009 followed by the government’s twists and turns in its public reaction to it and Ms Merkel’s too long lasting silence about it during last year’s election campaign. (Followed by initial denials and ill-advised attempts to justify, investigation reports ostensibly withheld and unknown to ministers and the chancellor’s office, the defence minister who was acting at the time of the Kunduz attack – he had moved to another portfolio, meanwhile – stepping down, the sacking of the Bundeswehr’s highest ranking soldier by his dashing successor as a scapegoat – he has subsequently challenged the minister that he had misrepresented the events that led to his dismissal -, the opposition social democrats demanding a full investigation with a lot of emphasis while trying to make everyone forget that their own chairman was foreign minister at the time, a parliamentary commission of enquiry established that will keep us busy though the new year etc.) A few more surprised might be still waiting for us in this unpleasant and completely unnecessary affair.

Now, and here every day business begins again, Ms Merkel’s words have to translate into politics. What can and will Germany do to strengthen its and its allies’ civilian engagement in Afghanistan?

The words of the new Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, a certain Mr Dirk Niebel (who had demanded the abolition and incorporation of the very portfolio he later accepted to be heading into the foreign office) around Christmas are not encouraging. As often in politics, positive aspects mix with controversial ones. Here also. While Niebel states that ‚in particular we intensively need to do something for the development of civil society in Kunduz’ he announced that German development money will be focused on areas where the Bundeswehr is present. (The exact quote – in my translation – is that German development cooperation will be ‘engaging in a very concentrated way exactly there where we also bear military responsibility’.) This is a clear step backwards. Aid workers and official in his own ministry have been fighting for years to exactly make sure that funds are also directed to other Afghan regions, amongst them such in which Germany has traditionally been involved before 1978 and where the memory as well as practical effects (educated and trained people, the technikums – vocational training institutes – in Kandahar and Khost and some other buildings like UNAMA’s offices in Gardez and Khost) are still present and highly appreciated amongst Afghans. That meant that German development policy recognizes that the German involvement is not confined to an ‘island’ in the Afghan North-East.

Even worse, the minister attacked German development NGOs who reject to be seen working too closely with the German military for their own protection in an unprecedented way: ‘If some non-governmental organizations want to tend a particular distance from Bundeswehr, they need to look for other donors.’

The NGOs shot back immediately. German Agro Action, a well-respected organisation with decades of work experience in Afghanistan, warned that development cooperation should not be allowed to become a ‘military instrument’. ‘It is perilous to work too closely to the military because in that case we would not be perceived as independent and impartial any more [by Afghans]’, said Ulrich Post, chairman of the board of Germany’s umbrella organization of development NGOs, VENRO.

That’s exactly the point. Mr Niebel seems to forget or is not aware that it was the military (not necessarily the German one) that created a situation that forced NGOs to react like this. Just to give a few examples: US Special Forces were driving around in cars with NGO number-plates (I saw that with my own eyes) making it easy for the Taleban to say that they are not able to distinguish between real NGOs and such covered operations. For a while, around 2002/03, all ISAF forces were using white cars – in defiance of the unwritten rule that this is the colour of the UN. And let’s not forget that the Taleban have their eyes and ears in NGO (and other) offices. They know exactly well which aid group is using PRT or other military funds in their projects. Remember the killing of three female expat International Rescue Committee staff in August 2008 along the Gardez-Kabul road in Logar which was exactly justified by the Taleban with IRC using US PRT funds.

Let’s see whether Ms Merkel’s kind words about aid workers was just a nice gesture in a Sunday speech or whether that translates into real politics. A first step would be to stop Mr Niebel proceeding on this confrontational course with the German NGOs.


Aid Germany Police