Murder of UN Worker Spotlights Resurgence of Taliban

The killing of a French UN relief worker Sunday in the Afghan provincial city of Ghazni underscores both the deteriorating security situation in much of the country two years after the ouster of the Taliban regime, and the degree to which the United Nations and aid workers in general have become targets in the ongoing "war on terrorism" between US-led western forces and Islamic radicals.

Monday the UN’s refugee agency announced it would suspend operations along the Afghan-Pakistani border, where it processes returning refugees, as well as its Ghazni office. Ghazni is located about 70 miles south of Kabul, along the highway to Kandahar.

Bettina Goislard was gunned down while riding in a clearly marked UN High Commissioner for Refugees car in the center of Ghazni city when two men on a motorcycle opened fire on the vehicle, killing her and injuring her driver. The two attackers were arrested, and Afghan authorities identified them as supporters of the Taliban, which is believed to have reestablished a presence in much of the southeastern part of the country, close to the border with Pakistan.

In a statement, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan condemned the attack, which he called a "cold-blooded killing" and "outrageous and contemptible."

Sunday’s attack came less than a week after a bombing in front of UN offices in Kandahar. Two people were injured in the Kandahar blast, which took place as a delegation from the UN Security Council was in Afghanistan to assess conditions there.

Goislard was the first UN staff member to be killed since the August bombing of the UN’s headquarters in Baghdad.

Annan’s statement Sunday stressed that the latest incident "underscores the urgent need for the international community to provide stronger security in areas outside the capital, Kabul."

Security remains a major and growing challenge to stabilizing and reconstructing the war-torn country. In addition to the threat by the resurgent Taliban in mainly Pashtun areas in the south and along the border with Pakistan, much of the countryside is ruled by tribal leaders and warlords whose loyalty to the central government headed by President Hamid Karzai is variable at best.

The UN Security Council recently approved a new resolution authorizing the deployment of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond Kabul, to which it had been confined since just after the Taliban’s ouster by US-backed forces. But NATO, which is leading ISAF at the moment, has failed to persuade member countries to add to the 5,500-strong force.

Norway and Germany have volunteered to begin sending troops to specific trouble spots outside of Kabul, but the Karzai government will continue to rely mainly on the 11,000 US-led combat troops currently deployed in Afghanistan as the main offensive force against Taliban concentrations.

Still, as even US military commanders have begun to acknowledge, the Taliban and its allies have made gains in recent months. Last week, the head of the US Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, described daily combat operations in Afghanistan as "every bit as much and every bit as difficult as those that go on in Iraq." Eleven US servicemen have been killed by hostile fire since August, almost one third of the 35 killed since the US first began military operations there in October, 2001. On Friday, a US Special Forces soldier was killed when his vehicle was hit by a bomb, while a Romanian soldier who was part of the US-led force died of wounds received the week before.

"The situation is much more serious than a year ago," Vikram Parekh, a Kabul-based expert with the International Crisis Group (ICG), told the Washington Post this weekend. "The cross-border infiltration is better financed, armed and equipped. The Taliban’s military leadership has been reconstituted, and in several provinces there is a more or less permanent presence of anti-government forces."

A major target of the Taliban strategy, at least since last summer, has been international aid workers, both expatriates and native Afghans who are apparently seen by the insurgent movement as key allies of the US and other western nations that are trying to rebuild the country.

In recent months a number of humanitarian relief groups have withdrawn their workers from provinces where the Taliban have carried out attacks against them or where security has broken down due to fighting between different factions. A recent survey of ten major aid groups estimated that security concerns have resulted in the cancellation or delay of aid projects that would have benefited more than 600,000 Afghans.

The survey also found that more and more Afghan communities are afraid to accept help, and some are even returning reconstruction assistance for fear that any relationship to the government or aid agencies may result in reprisals against them by the Taliban, warlords, or drug traffickers who are believed to have become increasingly powerful due to record opium crops harvested over the past year.

When the Security Council delegation visited Kabul ten days ago, a group of 28 international aid agencies, including Oxfam, Save the Children, CARE, and ActionAid, submitted a letter calling on the international community to "redouble" its efforts to extend security around the country, and particularly to protect those sectors that are most vulnerable to abuse – women, children, returning refugees, and displaced people.

The letter was delivered just one day after a bomb attack just outside the Kabul office of Save the Children, the first direct attack on the international aid community in the capital, according to the Afghan NGO Security Office (ANSO).

Since last March, more than a dozen aid workers, mostly Afghan employees, have been killed. In most cases, resurgent Taliban forces or their allies have been blamed. As a result, the relief groups have lobbied hard for months for ISAF to move into the countryside and secure key areas.

"What Afghanistan needs is something which might be more appropriately named ISAF Security Support Teams (ISSTs)," according to Paul Barker, CARE’s country director for Afghanistan. Assuming that ISAF will not be enlarged, "these teams would be deployed to the more insecure areas of the country, (and) their core responsibility would be to promote Afghan capacity to establish and ensure improved security." This would be done by training and conducting joint operations with the Afghan National Police Force and the Afghan National Army, which are being trained and equipped by US and other western forces.

(One World)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.