For decades, the Humanitarian community has confronted a range of complex emergencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, produced by political instability, war, and natural disasters. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Afghanistan and Pakistan became the centre spot of the US led war on terror. In October 2001, the U.S. government launched an operation to topple the Taliban government fin Afghanistan.
This was the beginning of over a decade of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations that would spill over into Pakistan as well. These military operations combined with severe natural disasters, like the 2005 earthquake and the 2010 floods in Pakistan, produce widespread displacement and destruction affecting millions of people. It became common for humanitarian assistance to be delivered by military and other active parties to the conflict in an increasing militarization of aid.
Humanitarian assistance also came to be seen as a way to advance a broader security and political agenda. This led to the steady erosion of the perceived neutrality, impartiality, and independence of humanitarian actors in both countries. As attacks and security threats against humanitarians increased, Afghanistan and Pakistan became among the deadliest countries in the world for aid workers. As military and humanitarian roles became less clearly delineated, both communities were forced to consider the unique implications for their respective sectors.
As humanitarians attempted to reassert themselves in this context, they came to realize they had severely curtailed access to the very populations they sought to serve. This complex operating environment raised a number of important questions for humanitarian action. To what extent should the scope of emergency humanitarian action include broader development, human rights, or other objectives. What are the unintended or long term consequences of increased integration between humanitarian operations and military objectives? What role does training have on one's ability to engage in humanitarian work? Should humanitarians train for work in active combat zones? Should soldiers train in the delivery of humanitarian aid? Which aspects of the principals are aspirational and which are borne out of practical necessity?
The humanitarian sector has grown and changed significantly over the past decades, yet the core principles have managed to remain fairly static. The history of the principles is intimately connected to their utility in the field, but the aid environment has changed. Consider whether the principals continue to fulfill their role as a guide to ensure safe access to vulnerable populations. As you think about the Afghanistan and Pakistan context, reflect on what types of principled actions have historically worked for the aid community and what challenges the sector should anticipate if it continues along the same operational trajectory outlined in this case.
This case explores the situation in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan. And evokes a number of themes that relate to the military and civilian work taking place in Afghanistan, and the ways in which that work is perceived within Pakistan when it had to respond to several devastating disasters.
One particularly important point is the militarization of aid, and that is the degree to which aid can only be delivered in a conflicted area by militaries. What that does is create a confusion between the neutrality of aid agencies working in the area, or attempting to work in the area, and blending them, at least in perception, with militaries that are working in the area.
This non-permissive environment, in other words very complex security environment, not only threatens NGOs in terms of their physical safety, but in the ability for them to be seen as neutral and independent. These roles that were then required of humanitarians and of the military, involved a crossing of what their normal training and practice, and normative foundation had asked them to do. So the humanitarians who usually are only doing protection and saving of civilians, were now bound up in military convoys and working within the US military envelope which had around it armed combat and heavily, heavily armed soldiers.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have long exemplified some of the most daunting challenges to the humanitarian community. Both countries showcase the trends in the humanitarian landscape over the past two decades: the increase in frequency and intensity of complex emergencies and natural disasters; the expansion of humanitarian assistance from a narrow set of relief activities to a widening range of poverty reduction, peace-building, and development activities; and the growing involvement of private contractors, government actors, and military forces in humanitarian response.
While militaries have long played key roles in humanitarian response, the “militarization of aid” as seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan illustrated the unprecedented use of humanitarian assistance as a core pillar of political and military strategies. This shift led to the steady erosion of the perceived neutrality, impartiality, and independence of humanitarian actors in both countries, with clear consequences for the access, acceptance, and safety of humanitarian workers.
The military who some day were killing people as is their mission in a war, and some day were helping to protect humanitarian agencies build clinics, and set up schools, also had a role confusion because they had to switch quite dramatically. For what they were trained to do and thought was the right thing, to what they had not been trained to do and had to absorb new understanding about what the right thing was in that context. This stress that happened to both sets of players, humanitarians and military, involved serious mental health concerns. And we saw this expressed in high levels of stress and anxiety. And those two issues of anxiety and stress had significant long term consequences, for both the solders and the humanitarian responders who served in that arena. So another major theme in the case of Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan is the issue of risk and security.
Much of the risk that humanitarian aid agencies face and the way they mitigate that risk is actually to embed in a community and gain the trust of a community. But at a point when you're seen as complicit with military actors, that sort of sense of neutrality is eroded and places the aid agencies at greater risk.
Shabir Ahmad is a UPSC aspirant/ emerging writer form Raiyar Doodhpathri.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.