(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Proliferation of armed groups threatens aid work

The ICRC says it has been forced to cancel aid projects
ICRC/Kate Holt

The increasing number of armed groups hired by the government or allied foreign military forces, and armed criminal gangs, are inhibiting humanitarian work in Afghanistan and pose serious risks to civilians, aid agencies warn.



The government and its allies are recruiting more and more local auxiliary forces to counter insurgents or criminal gangs.



"We are entering a new, seemingly more murky phase in the conflict in which the multiplication of armed actors threatens the ability of humanitarian organizations to access people in need," Bijan Fredric Farnoudi, a spokesman of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told IRIN.



Negotiating with different armed groups - which may have competing agendas - for access or security, has become complicated, he said.



“The ICRC cancelled several assistance projects because it was not possible to get security guarantees from all armed actors," he said, adding that it was difficult to determine the real number of armed actors on the ground.



ICRC’s concerns were echoed by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF): “The intensity of the conflict has increased and spread to more regions, so when more fighting is going on there are more fighters, more commanders and more people that we have to deal with in order to maintain the safety of our beneficiaries and staff,” said MSF’s head of mission, Michiel Hofman.



MSF returned to Afghanistan in 2009, after it lost five staff in an attack in June 2004.



Profits to be made



In theory, Afghan government forces (police and army) together with troops from 47 NATO-member and allied countries are fighting three main insurgent groups - the Taliban, Hizb-e-Islami and the Haqqani group.



In practice, there is a plethora of militia groups, which fight each other, engage in criminal activities, or provide security services to anyone interested, Thomas Ruttig from the Afghanistan Analyst Network (AAN), a Kabul-based research group, told IRIN.



“In Afghanistan, military logic drives the conflict, and armed groups for hire turned that into a system of political economy, i.e. they profit from the fighting and are not interested for it to stop,” said Ruttig who studies and writes about the Afghan conflict.



He accused foreign intelligence agencies, powerful warlords and even some government officials of running illegal armed groups for security, economic and political purposes.



Under a controversial plan which enjoys donor support, the government has been recruiting thousands of armed men to stave off the insurgents in insecure parts of the country.



Six militiamen allied to influential warlord Matiullah Khan from the volatile southern province of Uruzgan have even travelled to Australia for training with Australian Special Forces



Afghanistan’s multi-billion dollar narcotics industry, which supplies 90 percent of the world’s illicit heroin, also uses militia groups for protection, smuggling and other services, experts say.



“Vicious circle”



The fact that many new militia groups lack awareness of international humanitarian law, the Geneva conventions and the principles of aid work is a matter of grave concern for aid agencies.



"Our biggest concern is that more armed groups usually mean more violence and suffering. However, more armed groups also reduce our ability to access people and deliver vital assistance. It is a vicious circle," said ICRC's Farnoudi.



Another aid worker with extensive experience in Afghanistan, who preferred anonymity, said: “Reaching an understanding with all armed actors is not feasible.”



Over half of Afghanistan is already inaccessible to UN agencies and other international aid organizations due to insecurity.



After several difficult years, some aid agencies recently told IRIN access and acceptance of humanitarian work was improving, but rapid changes in the number and characteristics of security actors threaten this modest progress.



Over the past nine years, the Afghan government, technically and financially backed by donors, has spent hundreds of millions of dollars disarming and demobilizing militia groups in a bid to ensure peace and stability.



However, as the July 2011 deadline for the gradual withdrawal of US forces approaches, efforts are intensifying to fill the gap with private militias in order to stave off a quick return of the Taliban, Ruttig says.



This bodes ill both for aid agencies, which will find it even harder to reach deals on access or security with a hotchpotch of armed groups, and for civilians in need of protection and assistance.



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