Afghanistan more dangerous but total pull-out could be harmful, says NGO official after staff killings

Člověk v tísni an Afghanistan, photo: Člověk v tísni

In the worst such incident in its history, nine local staff of the Czech NGO People in Need were murdered in an attack in Zari in northern Afghanistan on Monday. The aid organisation has suspended all its activities in the country in the wake of the killings. But what does the future hold for People in Need in Afghanistan? I discussed the incident and its possible consequences with Jan Mrkvička, who heads the group’s Relief and Development Department.

People in Need in Afghanistan, photo: archive of People in Need
“We are all shocked in People in Need, because we really didn’t expect such a brutal attack on our staff, especially in the Zari district, which was calm over the last couple of years. That is with the exception of a few recent incidents but they weren’t directly targeting NGOs.

“Since we have been in Zari for over a decade, and people really know us very, very well, we felt safe in Zari, much safer than in any other regions in Afghanistan where we work.”

Do you know whether this attack was specifically targeted against People in Need. Or was it perhaps more random?

“We don’t know. Of course we have to work with all possible theories. That’s one of the reasons why we closed all our offices in Afghanistan down.

“We have to calculate as well that we were targeted as People in Need, but it is not a likely scenario, I would say.

“I believe that it was a symbolic attack on an NGO. NGOs are understood as those who are on the side of stabilisation of the country – and there are forces which don’t like this stabilisation.”

Jan Mrkvička, photo: Czech Television
You’ve suspended your activities in Afghanistan, but what do you think’s going to happen in the longer-term?

“We think about this question every day – and not only as a reaction to this incident. About to which extent Afghanistan is safe. And it’s not only about the management of the organisation – it’s about our normal employees, especially our Afghan employees.

“We have to evaluate things based on the concrete information on who was behind the attack. This is crucial for our reaction in the future.

“We have to understand why this happened; we know what happened, but we don’t really know why and who was behind the attack.

“Without this information we cannot make any decisions. But definitely we need guarantees of the security of our staff in all the regions where we work.”

What do you say to the suggestion that since the pull-out of most NATO troops Afghanistan is simply too dangerous for NGOs to work there?

“Afghanistan is more dangerous. But I’m not sure whether it is simply too dangerous. Up to this moment we felt that we could work quite freely, that we are accepted by the local communities, which is crucial. People want us there and this is our main motivation.

People in Need in Afghanistan, photo: archive of People in Need
“We don’t see that the whole country is simply not a place for NGOs. The number of incidents involving NGOs is growing, but I wouldn’t say that this is the moment when all NGOs, all internationals, all funding should leave the country and leave it as it is.

“Because we would probably contribute to even bigger insecurity. So this wouldn’t be a responsible reaction to the changing security situation in Afghanistan.”