Counter-Terrorism: Counter-Humanitarianism?

After 13 years of war, American and British combat troops have left Afghanistan's largest Province, Helmand, effectively bringing to an end what has arguably been the bloodiest fighting in the international military intervention since the War on Terror entered Afghanistan 2001. However, as Operation Enduring Freedom's boots on the ground withdraw at an emphatic rate across the country, the intelligence and information war continues through the US State Department and USAID 's counter-terrorism initiatives. Supposedly neutral humanitarian agencies in the country continue to be manipulated in the name of counter-terrorism, a resource that has been pivotal to the military's counter-insurgency strategy for well over a decade.

From the start of its operations in 2001, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan unapologetically put the provision of aid at the forefront of counter-insurgency doctrine, in its attempt to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population. From US Secretary of State Colin Powell's 2001 description of aid agencies as 'force multipliers' to NATO's Secretary General Rasmussen's 2010 admission that the military no longer provides the complete answer for complex conflicts such as that in Afghanistan, and must rely on the support of international NGOs for their "soft power" to "prevail". Operation Enduring Freedom's legacy for humanitarian aid agencies may be enduring, but it is not been one of freedom, but of co-option and manipulation.

Despite a determination to learn from its counter-insurgency failures in Vietnam, a similar mid-20th century strategy was revived by the US in both Iraq and Afghanistan to wage its Global War on Terror. But neither the war at large, nor the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan have prevailed. In today's Afghanistan, violence continues to increase, with 4,853 civilian casualties documented in the first half of 2014 alone; a rise of 24 per cent compared to the same period in 2013. The total child civilian casualties increased 34 per cent in the same period and well over half a million people remain internally displaced (UNHCR).

However, as the international counter-insurgency campaign fizzles out, the lines between politico-military action and independent, needs-based humanitarian approaches continue to be blurred by a counter-terrorism strategy which employs altogether more subversive tactics. Long after the last international troops have returned home, aid agencies receiving US funding will be centrally woven into US security strategy, stripping them of the neutrality and independence so vital to their own humanitarian operations and staff security.

Counter-terrorism encompasses a broad scope of activities. It can constitute a defensive role: requiring that travellers remove shoes at an airport scanner, increasing security cordons around sensitive installations, issuing terror alerts. It can be proactive: directly targeting individuals via drone strikes, infiltrating groups designated "terrorist". Somewhere on that spectrum are America's anti-terrorism screening, or "partner vetting", of the staff of aid agencies that receive US funding.

While it is a nation state's obligation to ensure the security of its citizens, U.S. vetting initiatives which make development and humanitarian funding conditional on sharing intimate data of employees and contractors, are dangerous for communities and aid agencies within Afghanistan and, in the long-term, for the US itself, as they propagate the miss-trust of US foreign policy from the governmental level all the way down to a local aid worker in a remote village.

The USAID's pilot Partner Vetting System (PVS) and the State Department's Risk Analysis and Management program (RAM) aim to ensure that US funds do not inadvertently benefit individuals or entities associated with terrorism. These programs create worldwide electronic databases on all contractors and locals associated with aid agencies, including names, identification documents and telephone numbers. The systems store their information and cross-check them against groups or individuals classified by the US as terrorists.

In countries where these schemes are being piloted: Guatemala, Kenya, Lebanon, the Philippines and the Ukraine - a diversity and spread clearly indicating the global intention and scope of the programs - NGOs are given the opportunity to step aside and allow individuals and contractors to vet themselves against the secretive database of groups. In Afghanistan, where partner vetting already exists, they are not; it is the responsibility of NGOs to collect, verify and submit information on individuals and sub-contractors to the database. Aside from the sizeable burden on NGOs of administering such vetting, these counterterrorist initiatives provide a fundamental assault on principled humanitarian action.

Firstly, counter-terrorism is necessarily one sided - a government's agenda is always partial. Humanitarian action, however, is by definition neutral - it does not take sides. Involving humanitarian actors in a counter-terrorism policy which purposefully designates an actor as terrorist or non-terrorist, violates the humanitarian principle of neutrality within the conflict and compromises independence from political agendas. By definition, the two disciplines are inherently at odds. By forcing a humanitarian actor to chose between becoming a tool for a party to the conflict in order to receive funding, and turning that essential funding down on principled grounds, the scheme demands that those agencies face an ethical dilemma which strikes at the core of their identity and purpose.

Secondly, the everyday implications of such policies are seriously problematic in practice. When NGOs are responsible for providing information to the US government on staff and contractors, yet another mechanism is created that further erodes the trust between humanitarian agencies and local communities, staff and beneficiaries - the most important relationships in safely negotiating access in a conflict zone. How can you tell communities, staff, contractors, combatants, that you are working neutrally and independently for the benefit of those most in need, whilst simultaneously informing on them to a belligerent actor who has been fighting a war in their country for the last 13 years?

While these schemes remain in place, it is premature to hope that as the war winds down aid agencies may finally be able to represent themselves honestly to the people they exist to serve. While co-option of humanitarianism in the name of counter-terrorism remains the primary proxy for boots on the ground and direct military intelligence - both in Afghanistan and around the world - humanitarian space will continue to close.

As international troops leave Afghan security in the hands of their domestic counterparts, ISAF will let its "clear, hold, build" counter-insurgency mandate fade. Humanitarian and development aid agencies, albeit with reduced funding and reduced international interest, will nonetheless continue their work of trying to treat, feed and shelter the most vulnerable. While doing so they will attempt to recover from the tarnish that their role in the "hearts and minds" arm of the counter-insurgency strategy has left. But rebuilding that lost trust will be no easy task while the use of aid agencies as a tool for political, military and intelligence objectives remains entrenched in US foreign policy. As long as that continues, neither the war, nor the mistrust it has fostered, will really be over.