Christian NGO Identifies Killed Aid Workers, Vows to Stay in Afghanistan

The International Assistance Mission (IAM), a Christian group whose 10-member medical team was ambushed by the Taliban on Friday, identified the killed aid workers Monday and pledged to continue in Afghanistan.

But the violent deaths of the group’s unarmed medics have highlighted the trend of rising civilian casualties in Afghanistan and is heightening concerns among international aid workers that the Afghan Taliban may try to prevent future relief efforts.

According to The Washington Post, the IAM, which has been operating in Afghanistan for 44 years, has no plans to leave the country:

” ‘It’s devastating for everybody,’ executive director Dirk Frans said of the killings. ‘Still, I don’t think it’s actually going to stop our work. We’ve been here all those years, and, God willing, we’ll continue.’

“The group’s 50 foreign volunteers and 500 Afghan staff members operate in seven Afghan provinces, with a program budget of $3.6 million in 2009, according to the annual report.”

On Friday, the bullet-ridden bodies of IMA’s eye-care team, including six Americans, two Afghan men, a German woman, and a British woman, were recovered from the northeastern province of Badakshan. IMA identified them all at a news conference Monday in Kabul, according to The New York Times, which identifies them in an article today.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for the killings, claiming that the Christian group’s volunteers were proselytizing and spying for Western military forces. IMA denies the charge, and its website says it does not use aid to further a religious view.

Aid Agencies Alarmed

Aid agencies in Afghanistan are reviewing security arrangements in the wake of Friday’s attack, reports the British newspaper The Independent:

Many [aid agencies] had until now assumed that the north of Afghanistan was a comparatively safe area to work in. Aid workers spoke yesterday of their worries that the attack signalled increased hostility towards foreign charities and relief agencies.

Aid workers repeatedly voiced their fears that their agencies are finding it harder than ever to show their independence from the foreign armed forces in the country, a crucial step in bringing the local population on board and ensuring their security.

There are also fears that further restrictions on civilian work in Afghanistan will hinder efforts to ensure that the millions of dollars in aid is not being wasted through corruption and incompetence, adds the Independent.

In May last year, the Afghan Taliban warned the pope that angry Afghan Muslims would retaliate if Christian proselytizing in Afghanistan, supported by the US Army, was not stopped, reported CBS News.

Aid work has increasingly focused on the north of Afghanistan since conflict in other parts of the country has hampered relief operations. The Christian Science Monitor reports, however, that security in Badakshan has been slipping, even though the province was ranked the fifth safest out of 34 in the second quarter of this year. Badakhshan lies on a major opium smuggling route and borders districts where the Taliban are active.

Other NGOs Vow to Stay

However, the Guardian newspaper reports that attacks by the Taliban against foreign aid workers are rare and that militants even grant safe passage to aid workers in some areas they control. The paper adds that the Talibans claiming responsibility for the deaths goes against their way of working which is to capture, not kill, then barter for ransom or the release of key prisoners.

The New York Times reports that some aid workers are hopeful that Friday’s massacre does not indicate a strategy shift among the Afghan Taliban against relief work:

The killings of the Nuristan Eye Camp Expedition brought to 17 the number of aid workers killed in Afghanistan this year, with another 19 abducted, according to the Afghan NGO Safety Office.

I don’t think it’s a change in policy, said Nic Lee, director of the Afghan safety office, who said the Taliban had tried to leave relief workers alone because they provided services to areas they controlled that no one else could. We have not advised NGOs that it’s some kind of strategic shift, and we think it has no implications for Badakhshan or for the rest of the country.

According to the Associated Press, Afghanistan’s human rights commission announced on Sunday that civilian casualties in the first seven months of 2010 rose by 6 percent over the same period last year.