Assets and Liabilities


By Michelle Fanzo

The brutal killing of U.N. staff in northern Afghanistan last week reveals an uncomfortable truth: in a counterinsurgency environment, everyone is on the front lines.  

By now, we all understand how the virtually instant global communication of information—and, more importantly, powerful images— has collapsed what should be a great deal of distance between the burning of a Quran in Gainesville and an angry mob emerging from a mosque in Afghanistan, almost 8,000 miles away. What’s harder for those of us in the developed Western world to understand is why that the murderous anger was turned on the United Nations, an organization committed to peace and rebuilding Afghanistan.  This reaction sheds light on the complexity of the situation and a few dangerous incongruities of our own making.

Let’s start with the complexity. The book burning and the U.N.’s reconstruction efforts are perceived in the United States as utterly different acts—the latter is bridge building, with constructive motives; the former is abject rejection, with destructive motives.

For Afghans, however—living with uncertainty in an increasingly unstable environment—everything that comes from the West is a part of a foreign intervention that some see as predicated on military power, even if many of its aims are humanitarian.

We expect people—even people under incredible economic duress and physical threat—to discern the difference between a perceived insult and an act of deadly violence. But for many Afghans, especially in moments of anger or confusion, these distinctions seem less clear. The fact the President Karzai issued a press release on March 24 saying the Quran burning was a crime against the entire Muslim community didn’t help. Worse, there are plenty of bad actors ready and willing to exploit those emotions for their own agenda: peel the onion, and realize that Friday’s mob, and very likely those that have emerged in the last three days in many other Afghan cities, are not spontaneous acts of hatred against the West. The book burning took place on March 20th; the mob attacked 12 days later. The Internet is faster than that, even in Afghanistan. Rather, the riots were incited by a small but influential extremist minority, pushing its own agenda. (A similar dynamic emerged in 2006, when anti-Western riots broke out after the publication by a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting Muhammad.)  

And finally, nothing happens in a vacuum. Civilian casualties have been an increasing point of contention in the country and in recent weeks there have been a large number of widely reported cases of Afghans being killed. Add to that videos and photographs recently published about the “Kill Team” of U.S. soldiers who allegedly have been murdering Afghan citizens for sport, and you can see the radical pastor’s actions as a flashpoint for focusing pent up emotions.

Make no mistake: the U.N staffers who died were murdered, as were a number of Afghans, and those responsible for their deaths are the people who killed them. But it is worth noting that U.S. and coalition policies have also put the development community at risk in Afghanistan.

Combat is not the only type of warfare in a landscape of power politics. Development activities—whether performed by NGOs, the U.N., or government sub-contractors—are viewed as a tool in the counterinsurgency toolbox, equal to defense and diplomacy. The delivery of basic services, economic development, good governance—these are the “soft power” side of creating stability in the country.  

The development community has taken up these tasks programmatically, but largely operate as if they were doing peacetime, Marshall Plan-style reconstruction. This works in stable countries. But in conflict and post-conflict environments, it places the development community in the precarious position of being a daisy in a gun barrel.

Perceiving themselves as neutral, impartial actors, development organizations (and the governments that fund them) must confront the dark side of well-meaning, nation-building actions: it provokes the enemy. Afghanistan is a conflict zone where combat goes beyond military actions.  Girls’ education can be met with acid thrown in the faces of twelve year olds. Why? Because every girl in a classroom is a loss for the other side. 

Aid and development cannot be neutral in such an environment, because every aspect of the environment has been politicized. You’ve taken sides just by showing up.

This is not to say the work should not be done—it should.  But funding allocations, staff skills, and operational capabilities need to be tailored for conflict areas.

Addressing this mismatch—between what we ask development workers to do and what we provide them with to do it—is particularly critical now, given that we are rapidly moving towards a military drawdown and a civilian surge. The lack of secure environment will likely be compounded by President Karzai’s recent move to eliminate international security firms in lieu of Afghan security services. 

One hundred aid workers were killed in Afghanistan in 2010. That is the highest number ever, anywhere, in a single year—and it doesn’t include the recent deaths of U.N. staffers in Mazar-i-Sharif.  While many development organizations are doing remarkable work despite the conditions, placing aid workers in conflict environments without the proper tools for the job risks poor outcomes—and lives.

While wishing to remain neutral to serve all people in need regardless of side is a laudable humanitarian principle, it doesn’t work in a place like Afghanistan. Having the military do quasi-development work—what the U.S. Army calls “stability operations”—is not the answer either.

Development actors have to be honest about their political roles and may need to establish operations in a way that are acceptable to all sides of a conflict rather than insisting on neutrality. There should be minimum standards for what capacities are necessary to work in such environments. If the environment doesn’t fit an organization’s mandate or capabilities, the organization should not work there. Governments who contract such projects need to make proper funds available that will allow development workers to do their jobs safely.  If this is not possible, then other actors, such as military, may be an option.

In a volatile environment, danger can only be hedged against so much. It’s hard to factor the effects of a radical Florida pastor’s actions into an organizational workplan in Kabul. But as individuals we can be better at understanding how others may perceive our actions; and as a policy we can take more responsibility to support those who work on the blurry front lines of our conflicts.


Michelle Fanzo, a former U.N. staffer, directed programs for Arzu, an NGO in Afghanistan that provides jobs, education and healthcare to Afghan women and their families, from 2005-2009. She is a Project Leader at the World Policy Institute.

[Photo courtesy of the United Nations.]

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