Rome – The case of the three Italians arrested this month on suspicion of trying to assassinate a southern Afghan governor concluded with a happy ending of sorts and a sure fire certainty – an uncompromising attitude that makes war-zone medical aid doubly dangerous.
The members of Milan-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) ‘Emergency,’ inlcuding surgeon Marco Garatti, nurse Matteo Dell’Aira and logistical technician Matteo Pagani, flew back to Italy on Wednesday after being detained on Apr. 10 when their hospital in conflict-torn Helmand province was closed down after arms and explosives were found there.
But at least one of the NGO’s local staff remained in custody at the time of writing and there was no certainty about whether the hospital at Lashkar Gah would reopen and, if so, whether it would still be run by Emergency.
The accusation that members of a pacifist charity who had given up European comforts to save lives in Afghanistan were involved in a plot to kill Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal had sounded outlandish as soon as it was aired. The NGO said the bombs had been planted at the hospital, with its founder Gino Strada adding that the trio’s release showed the “attempt to discredit us has failed”.
But it was no surprise that Emergency had come under the Afghan authorities’ scrutiny. Like other medical charities such as the Red Cross, it treats wounded regardless of whose side they are on, which means Taliban fighters are among those who benefit from their care.
But unlike other NGOs in the field, it has accompanied its work in Helmand with sharp criticism of the number of civilian victims of the southern offensive against the Taliban and allegations that the United States-led international coalition was preventing the injured from reaching their hospital.
“It’s probably right to say what happened, happened because we told the story of the war,” Dell’Aira told a news conference on Friday. “This annoyed people because we told all the stories of our wounded, 40 percent of whom are children.”
Another factor that may have contributed to the NGO being targeted is that the lack of vetting of their local staff led to suspicions that their clinic served as a safe haven for insurgents.
The fact that Emergency has twice acted as a go-between for the Italian government in negotiations to release kidnapped Italian journalists also suggested that it had some form of contact with the insurgency, further raising distrust in some quarters.
“Emergency are on the radar because they’ve highlighted themselves as trouble-makers by criticising the Afghan authorities and the international alliance,” Luca La Bella, an Asia expert with the Rome-based Centro Studi Internazionali (Ce.S.I – International Studies Centre), told IPS.
“That’s not a wise thing to do. Becoming an enemy of the government is bound to endanger your operations sooner or later.”
However, the affair probably reveals more about the state of play in Afghanistan than it does about the NGO’s relations with the Afghan authorities, especially given that its operations in the rest of the country do not appear to be at threat.
The episode comes at a time when relations between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his international backers are regularly on the rocks.
Karzai has torn into the West recently saying, among other things, that its diplomats orchestrated the notorious election debacle last year that saw the Electoral Complaints Commission, the then foreign-led electoral fraud panel, throw out a third of his votes, badly hitting his standing.
During a stand-off over appointments to the panel Karzai passed a decree in February giving him the power to name all five members, angering donors. A compromise was later reached under which two foreigners were to be included with veto powers.
La Bella believes the Emergency episode is the fruit of Karzai’s desire to prove he is not a puppet of his international backers and project himself as a true national leader ahead of attempts to make peace with the insurgents.
“After being forced to back down over nominations to the Electoral Complaints Commission, Karzai had to hit back and he did so by taking things out on Emergency,” La Bella said.
“He is doing this because he needs to establish himself among Afghans, who are so proud of their independence, as a leader capable of defending national sovereignty from the overlording powers in order to find reconciliation with the insurgents. He knows he can’t have both (legitimacy at home and abroad).
“He wants to engage with the insurgents while the U.S. wants to fight on to weaken them further (before talking), by taking a stand in the south and showing the Taliban can be beaten. Karzai would rather get on with the reconciliation process now.”
Some experts also see the fact that the British military helped the Afghans seal off Emergency’s hospital as a sign that all is not well within the international alliance.
“One of my field researchers who’s just returned from Helmand said that many people he interacted with were of the opinion that the mentioned incident was a result of the internal bickering within the international community, Italian and British forces in this case,” Idrees Zaman, a researcher with Afghan research think-tank Cooperation for Peace and Unity, told IPS.
“Generally speaking, in southern Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand, lack of coordination and internal rivalries between the coalition forces is a major issue these days,” Zaman added.
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