Crossed wires in military-humanitarian relations

Food aid convoys have repeatedly been attacked by criminal gangs and insurgents.

Differing accounts of a reported attack on a food aid convoy in Afghanistan have, whatever actually happened, highlighted the delicate relations between NATO-led military forces and humanitarian actors in the conflict.

“Insurgents attacked a World Food Programme [WFP] convoy in Jawand District, Badghis [Province], this morning. Escorting ISAF [NATO-led International Security Assistance Force] forces defended the convoy,” said a statement issued by ISAF on 11 October. The insurgents attacked the convoy of trucks contracted by WFP with the aim of disrupting food aid deliveries, ISAF said.

WFP, however, rejected the ISAF account: “The WFP convoy in Badghis was not attacked,” Susannah Nicol from WFP’s information office in Kabul told IRIN.

So far in 2008, 22 attacks have been reported on WFP food convoys which have resulted in the loss of 822 tonnes of food, according to WFP.

“When insurgents attacked, ISAF forces returned fire and advanced on the insurgent position. Arriving at the scene of the attack, the ISAF soldiers found two insurgents dead, about six motorcycles destroyed and some abandoned rocket-propelled grenades,” the ISAF statement said.

Clarifying the incident, a spokesperson told IRIN that ISAF forces that repelled the insurgents’ alleged attack in Badghis Province happened to be in the area and only acted “routinely”, an ISAF spokesman in Kabul told IRIN.

WFP's Nicol added that the organisation had not requested a security escort from ISAF and that no ISAF escort had been with the convoy. Dozens of WFP food aid convoys have also been attacked mostly in the volatile southern provinces over the past two years.

''We are extremely concerned that the routine use of armed escorts may be undermining the perception of impartiality and therefore, the security of humanitarian actors.''

The use of armed escorts, particularly of international forces, should be used as a “last resort” - when there is no other way to urgently deliver life-saving relief, according to Ingrid Macdonald, protection and advocacy manager for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Kabul.

“We are extremely concerned that the routine use of armed escorts may be undermining the perception of impartiality and therefore, the security of humanitarian actors,” Macdonald told IRIN.

The ISAF spokesperson said it routinely "offers" escort services to humanitarian convoys. But Macdonald said: “Given ISAF’s active role in Afghanistan’s conflict, if they are being used as regular escorts for humanitarian convoys it is extremely worrying for the entire humanitarian community - ISAF is one of the primary targets of the armed opposition.”

Macdonald urged donors to support humanitarians with the infrastructure for safe access and to provide non-militarised air support for humanitarian operations.

The latest incident comes amid an intense debate within the broader humanitarian community about the relationship between aid agencies and the military. Aid experts say mixing humanitarian operations with the military undermines their impartiality and makes them a target.


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:

Share this article
Join the discussion

Support The New Humanitarian

Your support helps us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.