Reconstruction team increases danger for aid workers, humanitarian groups say: Canada and U.S. say military projects are indispensable in fighting insurgency

Montreal Gazette
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
Page: A20
Section: News
Byline: LEVON SEVUNTS
Source: Freelance

Canada’s decision to set up a provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar has been praised by its NATO allies and particularly the United States, but some humanitarian agencies are worried they will suffer the collateral damage caused by this latest tool in the war on terrorism.

About 250 Canadian soldiers and five civilians – two Foreign Affairs officials, two RCMP officers and a Canadian International Development Agency official – left today for the southern Afghan city to set up Canada’s first ever PRT.

The goal of the team will be to assist the government of Afghanistan with security sector reforms: training the Afghan army and police, as well as helping with the Italian-led judicial reform and assisting the central government with improving governance in the restless Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban movement.

But officials with such reputable humanitarian agencies as CARE and Medecins Sans Frontieres warn that PRTs, created about two years ago, have endangered security of aid workers by blurring the line between civilian aid agencies that pursue purely humanitarian goals and the military, whose ultimate goal in providing humanitarian aid is to fight the insurgency by “winning hearts and minds.”

“Our biggest concern with this whole thing is that humanitarian aid is no longer seen as an end in itself but as means of pursuing development and quote-unquote establishment of peace,” said Tony Parmer, head of program department at MSF Canada.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, in particular, has been extremely critical of the reconstruction-team concept, blaming it for the death of five of its volunteers, who were gunned down in northwestern Afghanistan last summer, leading to MSF’s complete withdrawal from Afghanistan in July 2004.

“Attempts to use humanitarian aid to win people … jeopardizes the aid to people in need and endangers the lives of humanitarian aid workers,” the group’s operational director, Kenny Gluck, told reporters at a press conference announcing DWB’s unprecedented withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But both U.S. and Canadian officials have been unapologetic for their use of the teams, which they claim are indispensable in fighting the insurgency and bringing stability to Afghanistan. PRTs are there to stay, they say.

“Development and reconstruction here from the beginning depended on meeting some very difficult objectives in the field of security,” said Canada’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Christopher Alexander.

“And that’s why Canada’s development program here and its military contingent here work hand in hand.”

Canadian officials say the PRT is designed to help “extend the writ” of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s central government and is “a whole new chapter of Canadian engagement” in Afghanistan.

“We clearly are distressed when NGOs are targeted and hurt and we’re distressed when they feel so bruised by the experience that they have to leave,” said a high-ranking government official at a background briefing for Canadian reporters Thursday.

“But it’s a bruising business taking a country back from the kinds of people who have been in that situation for such a long time. And regrettably – you don’t want to be callous about this – there are casualties along the way in producing the success stories.”

And after a realization that just hunting down Al-Qa’ida and Taliban in Afghan mountains is not going to bring desired security, the PRTs have become central to a new U.S. strategy for pacifying the Afghan countryside.

Several U.S. military officials claimed in interviews in southeastern Afghanistan last month that PRTs and other types of humanitarian assistance have proved to be one of the most effective weapons against the insurgents.

Lt.-Col. Mark McLaughlin, commander of the PRT in Asadabad, in Kunar province, on the border with Pakistan, said that ever since his PRT started operating three clinics for the local population, the relations with the formerly hostile locals have improved significantly.

“We don’t get yelled at by locals, we don’t get doors shut at us,” Staff Sgt. Scott Cole, a team medic, said. “They’ve become extremely friendly.”

Lt.-Col. Norm Cooling, commander of the 3rd Battalion 3rd Marine Regiment, whose forces’ area of operations covered Kunar, Nangahar and Laghman provinces of eastern Afghanistan, said one of the most successful tools in fighting the insurgency at the disposal of U.S. commanders on the ground is the Commander’s Emergency Response Program.

Under the program, the commander can determine the high-impact projects that would make the most difference for the community and help coalition forces win the support of the population, Cooling said.

Unlike PRT projects that take a longer term view of development, emergency-response projects have an immediate security impact, Cooling said.

“My focus is a security focus,” Cooling said. “What areas are causing a problem? Is it because there is a legitimate anti-coalition militia leader or that people are not feeling the benefits of the government? Usually, it’s a combination of both.”

Levon Sevunts spent last month with U.S. and Canadian forces in Afghanistan.

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