Today (29 May 2013), suicide bombers attacked the office of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Jalalabad, killing an unarmed guard and wounding a delegate before the attack was suppressed by Afghan security forces. No-one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. Nevertheless, the insurgency has crossed a red line. It is not just that the ICRC enjoys special protection under the Geneva Conventions. In Afghanistan, the organisation has earned itself a reputation for neutrality and dedication through successive stages of the decades-long war. Its worth is acknowledged by all, including the Taleban who last year called it an ‘impartial organization [which] works throughout the world for the needy, helpless and oppressed people’. AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, looks at why this attack is so transgressive and what it might mean for the war in Afghanistan.
The ICRC has been targeted very rarely in this long conflict, although the insurgency did, pretty well, kick off with the murder of an ICRC engineer, Ricardo Munguia, in Uruzgan by the Taleban in March 2003. Witnesses said the gunmen who ambushed his vehicle telephoned their commander, the notorious Mullah Dadullah (killed six years ago), to confirm whether they should kill the foreigner working for the ICRC, after they had spared his Afghan colleagues. They reported he gave the order to shoot Munguia. The deliberate killing of a humanitarian worker, an ICRC delegate, shocked Afghans. Worse still, Dadullah was one of tens of thousands of Afghans to have a prosthetic limb; possibly his had been fitted by the ICRC.(1) Munguia’s murder was the first indication that the post-2001 ‘jihad’ was going to be particularly brutal.
It took some time for the ICRC to regain its confidence working in Afghanistan, but, as the insurgency has spread, the need to have a neutral, well respected body has become ever more obvious. There is no other organisation which can do what it does during wartime. It was already famous in Afghanistan for its humanitarian work and for being be-taraf – neutral. Since 2001, of all the international organisations, it has the strongest working relationship with insurgent groups: it gets the dead bodies of combatants home for burial, traces and visits security detainees, keeping them in touch with their families, provides medical care to civilians and wounded combatants alike and calls all sides to account for violations of the laws of armed conflict.(2)
The Taleban certainly know who the ICRC is. Following the murder of a British delegate in Quetta in Pakistan in 2012 (see reporting here and here), the Afghan Taleban published a very strong statement in support of the ICRC. Recalling the ICRC’s work going back to the 1980s when its hospitals treated mujahedin wounded, the statement said:
Presently the ICRC is providing valuable services by delivering letters to the prisoners and informing the families about their health condition, which is really a humanitarian service…. the [Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan] condemns the torture and killing of its worker inside the country as well as abroad; because it is an impartial organization and works throughout the world for the needy, helpless and oppressed people. (3)
The ICRC does not employ armed guards, instead relying on its reputation, the goodwill of the public and on talking to the different armed parties to ensure the safety of its staff.(4) Five days ago, the head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan, Gherardo Pontrandolfi, explained as much to the Indian news magazine, Tehelka:
We couldn’t work in the country with 17 offices without the agreement of all parties to the conflict which of course includes the Taleban. We have been working with same principle during the time of Taleban. All sides know the ICRC and have seen our neutral work. They know what to expect and what not to expect from us. And for the time being, we are respected for our work and I hope it will continue in the future as well.
There can be no doubt, then, that the Jalalabad attack was deliberate. Six days ago, when the Taleban accepted responsibility for their attack on the office of the UN-associated International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Kabul, they claimed it was actually a clandestine CIA office. By a big stretch of the imagination, this excuse could just about have been feasible, ie Taleban intelligence could have made a massive mistake. There could not be a similar claim about the attack on the ICRC, though. It and its symbol are too well-known in Afghanistan and its integrity vis-à-vis the foreign military and intelligence services not up for question. The question then, is who ordered this attack.
The ICRC spokesman told The Guardian, the compound had been attacked by ‘some armed people, we don’t know who they are really, we are trying to find out’ (read the ICRC statement on today’s attack here). As to threats, in his recent interview, head of delegation Pontrandolfi said there was no indication that any party of the conflict had a problem with ICRC’s work or wanted to harm them. ‘But again,’ he warned, ‘You are never certain. The conflict situation is always a fluid situation. Alliances change and power structure shifts.’ In April 2013, after the murder of two workers of the Afghan Red Crescent at a mobile clinic, he told journalists that increasing numbers of Afghans were being cut off from healthcare by ‘an increase in armed groups and the splintering of insurgent factions’.
Usually after particularly grievous or outrageous killings, the Taleban deny responsibility or obfuscate whether or not they were behind the attack, so I would not expect a claim of responsibility even if they were behind it (compare for example, their response to the killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani killing and the 2001 Ashura bomb attack in Kabul and see analysis of the movement’s denials in AAN’s report on their Code of Conduct, the Layha).
If the Jalalabad attack was not ordered by the Taleban, it would be good to hear not just a denial, but a condemnation. Up to now, one would have said it was in their own interests to have the ICRC working safely in their country. But if this was a Taleban attack – ordered from the top or by a rogue or outside group -, it is even more serious and one would have to expect even bloodier times ahead.
(1) An ICRC doctor said they had no record of giving him his plastic leg, but given that patients do not always give their real names, he said it was quite possible and indeed statistically probably he had been treated by ICRC.
(2) On its website, it says:
The ICRC’s delegation in Kabul was established in 1987, after eight years working in Pakistan for victims of the Afghan conflict. The operational focus is on monitoring the conduct of hostilities and working to prevent violations of international humanitarian law, protecting detainees and assisting civilians affected by the conflict. The ICRC tries to restore family links and acts as a neutral intermediary to enable humanitarian action to take place across front lines. It assists the wounded and disabled, supports hospital care and improves water and sanitation services.
(3) The full statement read:
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan:
The Valuable Services Of The Red Cross In Reducing The Sufferings Of Afghans
Rajab 18, 1433 A.H, Saturday, June 09, 2012
In the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.
The international committee of Red Cross (ICRC) is one of the well known organizations working in our area for the last sixty years. Especially during the Soviet invasion it had rendered valuable services to the Afghans by providing treatment to the wounded ones. For this purpose it had specific hospitals in Peshawar and Quetta where it used to admit the wounded persons of all the Jihadist groups or send them abroad. Presently the ICRC is providing valuable services by delivering letters to the prisoners and informing the families about their health condition, which is really a humanitarian service.
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan supports as per its policy each and every NGO which is useful for the ordinary Afghan and does not support the foreign invasion. Similarly the IEA tries its best to facilitate them according to possibilities and condemns the torture and killing of its worker inside the country as well as abroad; because it is an impartial organization and works throughout the world for the needy, helpless and oppressed people.
We would to draw the attention of the ICRC to all the prisoners related to the IEA and being tortured in jails, known or underground, by the puppet regime of Kabul and the Americans as well. They are treated in a biased and discriminate manner. The barbaric techniques common in the communist regime in Afghanistan are used once again to torture the prisoners. This is not a mere claim but the reports of the impartial human rights organization testify it and the media have published it.
Moreover the Americans have set up secret cells in all of their bases where they torture the prisoners and the news does not come out. We ask the ICRC to investigate the hidden jails in the American bases beside Bagram and Qandahar bases. The ICRC should put pressure on the invading forces to refrain from the torture and humiliation of the prisoners. Similarly it is well known that for the last decade the Afghans are living in Guantanamo and other jails inside Afghanistan under the control of Americans as well the puppet regime of Kabul without any trial and official indictment. We ask the ICRC to accelerate its efforts for their release according to its policy because the arrest and detention of these people is itself a violation of the international human rights and is a brand of infamy for the civilized humanity.
Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
(4) One Taleb who came round to the ICRC through direct experience of their work is the movement’s leader Mulla Muhammad Omar himself, who when fighting the Soviets lost an eye in fighting and, according to some reports (read one here; also mentioned in Ahmed Rashid’s book Taleban) spent three months in an ICRC hospital in Quetta in 1989. Also, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taleban ambassador to Pakistan who was arrested and taken to Guantanamo Bay in 2001 has few words of praise for any foreigners in his book, ‘My Life with the Taleban’, but the ICRC is a notable exception. After first believing delegates visiting him were spies, he was, in the end, convinced of their worth.
Photo from Twitter, here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020