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NATO-led forces, aid agencies agree new modus operandi

An armed guard travels with a previous WFP food consignment.
(Masoud Popalzai/IRIN)

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and humanitarian aid organisations, including UN agencies, have agreed on a set of rules to improve civil-military interactions and clarify roles amid mounting concerns over “shrinking humanitarian operating space”.

The Guidelines for the Interaction and Coordination of Humanitarian Actors and Military Actors in Afghanistan, better known as the Civ-Mil Coordination Guidelines, have been prepared and endorsed by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), over 100 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Afghan government and NATO-ISAF.

"These guidelines will prevent a blurring of the lines between the role of military and humanitarian actors, preventing humanitarian space from being squeezed further. Recognising the distinct role that we have to play will be a vital component of protecting our impartiality and opening up humanitarian space for us," said Aleem Siddique, UNAMA's spokesman.

The Guidelines are expected to address concerns over the increasing involvement of international military forces in humanitarian aid and development activities, which some experts say have greatly diminished the operating space for independent aid workers.

“It is an important step forward in improving the coordination between military actors and humanitarian actors,” Anja de Beer, the director of ACBAR, a network of dozens of Afghan and international NGOs, told IRIN in Kabul.

“We hope the guidelines will in the future avoid misunderstandings, and the neutrality of humanitarian actors is better respected,” de Beer said.

Mark Laity, a NATO spokesman in Kabul, said the ISAF commander had ordered that the Guidelines be implemented by ISAF troops: “Subordinate commanders are expected to implement it,” Laity said.

Photo: Abdullah Shaheen/IRIN
NATO commands about 47,000 troops from 39 nations, including 26 member states, and operates 26 Provincial Reconstruction Teams across Afghanistan

OEF, Taliban stance on new Guidelines

The NATO-ISAF mission - with over 50,000 troops from 40 contributing nations, including about 23,000 from the USA - is authorised by the UN Security Council to help the government of Afghanistan ensure security and facilitate a safe environment for reconstruction and development.

There are also thousands of other US forces in the country beyond NATO’s writ that operate under the Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) structure and are primarily engaged in “counter-terrorism” activities.

A spokesperson for the OEF forces at Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul, said there was no need for them to approve the Guidelines.

"OEF forces are not routinely involved in development projects and therefore are not required to approve this guideline. The majority of US forces are assigned to ISAF/NATO and are in compliance with this guideline," Rumi Nielson-Green, director of public affairs for Regional Command East & Combined Joint Task Force 101, told IRIN on 4 August.

The main armed opposition to Afghan and international forces - Taliban insurgents - are apparently “unaware” of the Guidelines. Zabihullah Mujahid, a purported Taliban spokesman, said: “We have no idea about these guidelines and were never part of the process which produced them… We only respect truly neutral and independent aid organisations which do not work at the behest of American and Western forces,” he said, when asked about the safety and security of aid workers in areas under Taliban control.

Photo: Ebadi/WFP
Worsening security has impeded the UN's and other aid agencies' access to many districts in Afghanistan, mostly in the south

Distinct roles

The Civ-Mil Guidelines attest to the distinct roles played by military actors and aid workers in Afghanistan.

“Government and humanitarian actors have the primary role of providing humanitarian assistance, and the military is primarily responsible for providing security - and if necessary, basic infrastructure and urgent reconstruction assistance limited to gap-filling measures until civilian organisations are able to take over,” the Guidelines state.

Fundamental differences in the work and responsibilities of military forces vis-à-vis aid workers should be recognised and respected by all, according to the Guidelines.

“All humanitarian actors, military actors and other security actors should at all times be respectful of international law and Afghan laws, culture and customs,” the Guidelines say.

The Guidelines call on parties to the conflict to allow humanitarian access to all parts of the country and make every effort to ensure aid workers’ safety and security.

Photo: Ebadi/WFP
Humanitarian assistance ‘must not be used for the purpose of political gain, relationship-building, or winning hearts and minds’, the Guidelines say

Aid not for “winning hearts and minds” 

Some aid agencies, such as Oxfam International, have criticised aid given by military actors, and say armed forces often use relief and aid programmes to achieve military and political gains.

In an effort to address such criticisms the Civ-Mil Guidelines stress the apolitical, unconditional and purely philanthropist nature of humanitarian aid.

“Humanitarian assistance ‘must not be used for the purpose of political gain, relationship-building, or winning hearts and minds’,” the Guidelines say.

The Guidelines call upon aid agencies to uphold, demonstrate and protect their integrity, impartiality and independence, and avoid taking sides with warring parties.


“As all actors who have taken a proactive stance in support of the GoA [Government of Afghanistan] (including the UN, the EU [European Union], ISAF and other security forces) are currently targets of armed opposition groups in Afghanistan, a distinction must be retained between the identities, functions and roles of these entities and those actors who seek to preserve neutrality,” the Guidelines state.

Siddique of UNAMA said the UN agencies were playing a "neutral" role: "A distinction must be retained between the identities, functions and roles of the different actors to preserve our neutrality," Siddique said.

The implementation of the Guidelines will be monitored by a Civ-Mil Coordination Group, which meets every six months and is comprised of representatives of NATO-ISAF, UN agencies, NGOs and the Afghan government.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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