TORONTO – As the Taliban issued an explicit threat against Canadian aid workers and the killings of nongovernmental staff reached record levels in Afghanistan, a Canadian Catholic aid agency said it remains committed to its work there.
“The projects are mainly projects developed by the Afghan people themselves. We do support the Afghan groups. It doesn’t change the way we will be intervening in Afghanistan,” said Danielle Gobeil , assistant director for international programs for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace. The agency works with women’s groups straddling the Afghan-Pakistani border in the zone of conflict.
Four development agency workers – two Canadians, one Afghan and one with dual U.S. and Trinidadian citizenship – were killed just south of Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 13. The attack brought Western aid agency deaths in Afghanistan in 2008 to 19, a new record. The four were gunned down in their white SUV clearly marked with the emblems of the International Rescue Committee, which has provided humanitarian relief to Afghanistan for more than 20 years.
The Islamic-fundamentalist Taliban, which ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until U.S.-led forces ousted it in 2001, followed up the attack with an open letter to Canadians urging them to persuade their government to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and threatening to kill more aid workers. A Taliban spokesman told Toronto’s The Globe and Mail its attack on International Rescue Committee aid workers was retaliation for a U.S. airstrike that hit a wedding party in Jalalabad July 6.
Afghan officials said 27 people, including the bride, were killed July 6. The Taliban claimed 49 were killed. A U.S. military spokesman said only insurgents were hit.
Development and Peace does not have Canadians in Afghanistan, but spends about $100,000 a year supporting local nongovernmental organizations led and staffed by Afghans. But being an aid worker who is Afghan provides no protection; the Taliban regards them as agents of the foreign occupiers of their country, said Ms. Gobeil.
“They are targets,” said Ms. Gobeil. “They know the game. They have always been targets.”
The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief reports that 260 civilians were killed in July, the highest number since 2002. The agency attributes about two-thirds of the deaths to a 50 percent rise in insurgent attacks since last year, but also notes the considerable number of civilians killed by NATO aerial bombings.
Most Catholic agencies in Afghanistan work primarily with local staff with only the minimal and occasional presence of Western aid workers. None have decided to quit work in Afghanistan, though all expressed concern about increasing numbers of civilians and humanitarian workers caught in the crossfire.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services said the aid agency wanted to stay “below the radar” on the issue of violence against aid workers. CRS runs projects in some of the safer areas of the country and employs more than 200 Afghan staff, but still constantly monitors the security situation.
CRS stays in Afghanistan because it feels its development work is vital to the population, said the spokeswoman. “Great work is happening, safely, in many parts of Afghanistan; it’s just not making news,” she added.