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Aid and Ammo Don't Mix

December 02, 2003

President Bush's plea to international aid groups to keep working in Iraq despite attacks against them was unfortunate. His poorly phrased remarks last month seemed to make the independent, civilian good Samaritans from a host of countries appendages of the U.S.-led army of invaders and occupiers. In the eyes of guerrillas, that makes them bigger targets.

In April, Care International drafted guidelines, later adopted by other groups, insisting that aid organizations be allowed to operate free of military control in Iraq. The groups recognize the need to walk a fine line between, on the one hand, accepting the security that soldiers can provide for their staffs and, on the other, showing Iraqis they are independent of the U.S. government and provide help impartially.

After a series of attacks on U.N. and Red Cross workers prompted staffing cuts in Iraq, Bush said that if nongovernmental organizations failed to return to Baghdad, "they're doing exactly what the terrorists want them to do."

That's true: Terrorists want chaos that forces foreign aid groups to cease operations. But U.S. officials must recognize that aid workers are not part of the government, and humanitarian missions are different from military campaigns. That lesson should have been learned through the strong objections of nongovernmental organizations to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's description of them as "force multipliers" and an "important part of our combat team" in Afghanistan.

International peacekeepers in Kabul have done a good job of providing security that lets aid groups help residents recover from decades of invasion and war. But the lack of peacekeepers elsewhere in Afghanistan has made much of the country so dangerous that groups have withdrawn their non-Afghan workers or even shut down operations. The November murder of Bettina Goislard, 29, a French woman working for the U.N. refugee agency south of Kabul, chilled many foreigners. She was riding in a clearly marked U.N. vehicle when two men on a motorcycle shot her.

Iraqi guerrillas have increased attacks on foreigners. With fewer aid workers to target, the killers have turned to allied forces, slaying seven Spaniards and 19 Italians last month. They also have targeted civilians, killing two South Korean electricians, a Colombian contractor and two Japanese diplomats over the weekend.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, it will be important for aid workers to remain separate from military forces so those who need their help neither fear nor target the men and women providing assistance. Better security in both countries would let aid workers help war-torn countries rebuild, the goal they share with the U.S.

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