What Washington Should Learn From the Death of Aid Workers in Afghanistan

The massacre of humanitarians this week shows that there are dangers in shedding security and stepping out onto Afghanistan's dusty roads. Yet US military personnel are taking far more risks.
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The deaths of ten humanitarian workers this week in a remote region of Afghanistan underscore the unique but silent work done by American citizens not serving in government or military.

Glen Lapp, one of those killed with the International Assistance Mission (IAM) team of medics, was my host in Afghanistan as I travel back and forth from the country to do my own development work there. I lived with other colleagues at the IAM guesthouse in Kabul and admired the work of this organization that has served alongside Afghans since 1966. The longest-standing international organization in Afghanistan, IAM stayed through the years of civil war, Russian occupation, Taliban tyranny and the ongoing dangers since 2001.

Humanitarian groups like IAM have a unique perspective on the plight of Afghanistan and what could be done to build peace here. While they risk their lives, they also are able to help thousands of Afghans with medical care, clean water, schools and all the other forms of development that help build security from the ground up.

Glen and I walked all over Kabul listening and talking to Afghans on the street and in community organizations. Glen had learned to speak Dari, and as such, had learned a great deal more about Afghanistan than most other foreigners without language capacity.

Glen and I talked a great deal about security. I asked him, "is it safe for us to be walking downtown here - I don't see any other foreigners around?"

While it is mostly safe for foreigners walking and working in Kabul, most foreigners live behind barbed wire, stuck inside cement compounds. Security concerns keep most foreigners from hearing the perspectives of Afghans and prevent them from either fully understanding the situation or being able to work with Afghans in a way that truly empowers and partners with local leaders.

With the US spending billions on security assistance and intelligence gathering each year in Afghanistan, most Americans serving in Kabul have little interaction with Afghans at the community level that could provide them with a clearer sense that current US policy in the region is perceived as confused at best and counterproductive at worst.

The massacre of humanitarians this week shows that there are dangers in shedding security and stepping out onto Afghanistan's dusty roads. Yet US military personnel are taking far more risks.

Why can't the far-too-few US development and diplomacy personnel get permission to venture out of their security prisons so they can gain a better sense of the problems and prospects for US policy in the region? Why should only military personnel and humanitarians take the risks of losing their lives?

What American policymakers would find out if they left their castles is that most Afghans are well aware that the number of civilians killed in Afghanistan has risen almost 6% in the first seven months of 2010. Many Afghans feel that US policy in the region is horribly wrong.

The concept of counterinsurgency and its stated focus on population-centric security and protection of civilians is not perceived as such by many Afghans. Rather, many blame international forces for civilian deaths, for the indignities of night raids and house searches, for stirring up greater violence by fomenting new recruits for the Taliban, for arming militias in the countryside, and for propping up warlords and corrupt Afghan officials.

What they long for the US and the international community to do is to provide diplomatic leadership in the region -- as many Afghans blame interference from Pakistan, Iran, India and other countries as at the root of their problems. Many want a long-term commitment from the international community to work with them in the coming decades to stabilize their country through expanded training for Afghan police. They ask for the US to stop shoving money at contractors in hugely expensive but unsustainable development projects that drive local corruption and instead make a ten to twenty year commitment toward local Afghan-led development with those funds.

The tragedy this week will likely not have a big impact on humanitarian work in the country. Those of us in this profession know the risks and will continue to do the work. The people it impacts the most are the Afghans who benefit from these types of humanitarian missions.

And for Washington, I hope the impact of the tragedy opens their eyes to the risks their own development and diplomacy personnel could take in order to better serve the people of Afghanistan and to better understand how to shape US policy in the region. If US diplomats and development experts can't or won't leave safe compounds, then they should invite more NGOs and Afghan community leaders in to advise them on grassroots perspectives on and recommendations for US policy.

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