The decision on Wednesday by the Nobel prize-winning aid organization to pull out of Afghanistan underscores the growing security threat in the country and fuels worries that other aid groups may follow its lead.
Doctors without Borders is leaving Kabul
The relief agency Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) announced Wednesday it intends to cease its operations in Afghanistan and pull out all of its staff. The decision comes after the murder of five of its aid workers in the country on June 2, for which Taliban militants claimed responsibility. The group has also accused United States-led forces in Afghanistan of using humanitarian aid for military and political motives.
"The US-backed coalition has constantly sought to use humanitarian assistance to build support for its military and political ambitions and MSF denounces this attempt to coopt humanitarian aid," said Marine Buissoniere, the organization's secretary general. Buissoniere added that the US's blurring the boundaries between aid workers and military personnel was "endangering the lives of humanitarian workers and jeopardizing aid to people in need."
Killed by the Taliban
Taliban fighters claimed responsibility for the killings of five MSF workers in June.
The organization also accused the Afghan government of failing to conduct a proper investigation into the murder of the aid workers, who were ambushed in their clearly marked vehicle on a rural road near Badghis in the northwestern part of the country. All five -- three Europeans and two Afghans -- were shot dead, and Taliban insurgents later claimed responsibility. Police initially arrested around a dozen people, but all were later released.
The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, which was forced from power during the US-led war in 2001, has said that it regards aid workers as legitimate targets. More than 20 have been killed in Afghanistan this year alone. And on Wednesday, MSF said the country had become far too dangerous for its workers.
MSF officials also stated that the context in which humanitarian organizations have to work in the country is making it almost impossible to provide aid to the Afghan people. Much of the south and eastern parts of Afghanistan are effectively off-limits, and the northern region is quickly becoming a no-go zone, too. Only the capital, Kabul, which is guarded by international troops, is relatively secure.
MSF’s withdrawal represents a serious blow to the Afghan government, which is heavily reliant on foreign organizations to provide humanitarian assistance. It also highlights the worsening security situation in the run-up to the presidential elections scheduled for this October.
US 'regrets' pullout
The United States said Wednesday that it "regretted" the decision and asked the aid organization to reconsider its move. However, the State Department also rejected MSF's claim that Washington was using humanitarian aid to further political or military goals. "
We've never conditioned our aid on cooperation with military operations," State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters. "We strongly reject any allegation that our actions have made it more dangerous for humanitarian workers to assist the people of Afghanistan."
Nevertheless, US officials still asked the group to stay on in Afghanistan. "They are doing important and invaluable work there," Ereli said.
A domino effect?
The organization has been working in Afghanistan for 24 years, and the Nobel prize-winning NGO has 80 foreign and 1,400 Afghan staff in the country. Many operations were suspended immediately after the attack in June. Its decision to pull out is likely to have a domino effect, prompting other aid organizations to reconsider their involvement there.
Since May, the organization has repeatedly claimed that humanitarian aid was being "co-opted" by the US military. MSF officials have said that they were extremely concerned about leaflets being distributed by coalition forces. These included a picture of an Afghan girl carrying a bag of wheat, and linked the continued provision of humanitarian aid with the local population’s willingness to pass on information relating to the Taliban, al Qaida, and other militant groups.
MSF accused the coalition forces of attempting to usurp and misrepresent the provision of aid, and warned that such tactics would increase the danger for aid workers.