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Line of Fire

Does the military endanger humanitarian aid workers?

The long list of indictments against recent American foreign policy includes one issued by some of the world's noblest people: international aid workers. By cynically and recklessly blending military and humanitarian missions, the charge goes, the United States has blurred the line that once kept aid workers safe and has made them attractive targets for extremists seeking to attack American interests. Innovations like Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan, which mix military personnel with civilian aid experts have made some humanitarian workers queasy, and the sight of American troops driving around Afghanistan in white SUVs--long favored by aid groups--only made things worse.

When the Nobel-prize winning organization Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) dramatically withdrew from Afghanistan in 2004 after the murder of five staff members, it had harsh words for the tactics of U.S. forces in the country. "MSF denounces the coalition's attempts to co-opt humanitarian aid and use it to 'win hearts and minds,'" the organization announced in a press release. "By doing so, providing aid is no longer seen as an impartial and neutral act, endangering the lives of humanitarian volunteers and jeopardizing the aid to people in need." The accusation is seconded by others in the humanitarian community. "[The military] starts to look like us," says Gerald Martone, director of humanitarian affairs at the International Rescue Committee. "Why should we be protected if we're in fact the same people [as the American soldiers]?"

But the evidence doesn't support the charge. A comprehensive new study by New York University's Center for International Cooperation has painstakingly catalogued and analyzed attacks on aid workers around the world, and it reaches some surprising conclusions. First, while delivering aid in conflict zones is quite clearly dangerous, there's no good evidence that it has become appreciably more dangerous since the U.S.-led war on terror began. (Indeed, one of most horrifying attacks on aid workers--the murder of six Red Cross personnel--occurred in Chechnya in 1996.) The report found that the increase in total attacks appears to be a function of more aid workers being in the field than ever before.

When the study tried to find a link between attacks on aid workers and the presence of American troops, it came up empty. Factors like the presence of U.S. forces "had no statistically significant impact on aid worker violence." In fact, the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers are not Iraq and Afghanistan, but Sudan and Somalia, where U.S. troops have little if any presence.

None of this means that the U.S. military hasn't made blunders in its relations with humanitarian groups. There is no good reason soldiers should be driving around in white SUVs or working in civilian clothes while doing aid work. And certain other tactics have clearly crossed the line. In 2004, the U.S. military was forced to apologize for distributing leaflets to villages in southern Afghanistan that linked the delivery of food and medicine to information on Taliban whereabouts. (And, in plenty of cases, the military simply isn't good at aid work. As the IRC's Martone describes it, military reconstruction projects are often superficial and lack the follow-up that aid groups can provide.)

NGOs have worked with the U.S. military to address some of their concerns, but MSF at least believes the underlying problem of mixing guns and butter, and the consequent increased danger to aid workers, continues. "Militaries have made the strategic choice to integrate relief into their operations for security and political purposes," says Nicolas de Torrenté, executive director of MSF's U.S. office. "I don't think there's been any shift in that approach."

But the NYU study suggests that the decisions of national militaries to "co-opt" humanitarian aid are not an important factor in endangering aid workers. The Taliban, Al Qaeda, Somali warlords, and Janjaweed in Sudan have all made sowing destruction and disorder part of their battle plan. Whether the goal is evicting residents from Darfur, undermining support for Hamid Karzai's government in Afghanistan, or fomenting sectarian violence in Iraq, making civilian populations feel insecure is often a central tool. So it is no surprise that aid groups have become frequent targets: By providing succor to vulnerable populations, their work can itself impede extremist agendas.

More fundamentally, the usually Western organizations often embody threatening values, even if they don't preach them explicitly. "Islamists kill aid workers because they are part of the infidel project, and a very cutting edge part of it," says Hugo Slim, chief scholar at the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. "They see that if Save the Children or Oxfam turn up today, they're looking at a challenge of liberal democracy tomorrow and all sorts of values they're not interested in. They don't want an infidel presence on the land." In many cases, according to Slim, it is not links to the U.S. military that makes them targets--it's their very identity.

Even if it were possible somehow to wall off aid work from peacekeeping and counterinsurgency, it's not at all clear that such a separation would be desirable. The U.S. Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine--co-authored by General David Petraeus, now the commander in Iraq--makes clear that aid work and reconstruction are an integral part of the struggle. "There's no such thing as impartial humanitarian aid work," the report states bluntly. "Whenever someone is helped, someone else is hurt--not least the insurgents." It's important that at least some good works be identified with the peacekeeping forces and--even more importantly--with the struggling central government. What's more, in plenty of areas, the military is the only aid agency that can actually operate. In these environments, the choice may be militarized aid or no aid at all.

As the counterinsurgency efforts continue in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. and other coalition forces may have to meld their military work even more closely with reconstruction and the delivery of basic services. U.S. troops in Ramadi now are struggling to battle insurgents while building schools and supporting literacy projects. In Afghanistan's troubled Helmand province, British and Afghan troops are targeting Taliban leaders while working closely with development officials on economic revitalization.

All of this may be troubling to the humanitarian purists, but it is also a critical tool in defeating the insurgency and creating a decent and viable state--and that may be the most important humanitarian goal of all.

By David Bosco