- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been providing medical training to members of the Taliban, including some high-ranking combatants, in Afghanistan.

The humanitarian group says in a recent report that it provided first-aid training and first-aid kits to more than 70 “members of the armed opposition” in April.

Christian Cardon, a Geneva-based spokesman for ICRC, said in a phone interview that a wide range of Taliban fighters, including some senior-level militants, received such training.

Combatants of varying ranks attend these camps, but it is important to have “high-rank people also so they can at least transmit this knowledge to other combatants,” he said.

Besides the militants, 100 Afghan security personnel received similar training in April.

Mr. Cardon said the Afghan government and police are aware of activities at the camps and that assistance is provided in a transparent manner. He said the camps “precisely illustrate the core mandate of the ICRC — to give assistance to people wounded during a war.”

Coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan also frequently provide medical assistance to captured Taliban fighters, but if it is determined the fighters are enemy combatants, they are not permitted to return to the battlefield.

“One of the litany of things that separates the international coalition from the Taliban is that we have frequently provided first aid to injured Taliban fighters,” said Lt. Col. Todd Viciana, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

Col. Viciana said ICRC is one of many nongovernmental organizations with which ISAF has “worked the closest, and we respect the humanitarian work carried out by them.”

“We recognize the need for their work to be executed impartially — and it’s precisely for this reason that they are able to gain the access that they do,” he said.

However, some Afghan officials privately expressed concern about ICRC’s assistance to the Taliban, analysts said.

“Everyone I have come across has had the same visceral, emotional reaction to the idea that the ICRC is ‘assisting’ the Taliban,” said Stephanie Sanok, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Ms. Sanok said although she is not worried about such assistance because of ICRC’s reputation for being impartial, she is concerned about “a potential slippery slope.”

“One might argue that ICRC is providing this kind of assistance and training, so why not provide the combatants with more training? There is a potential for that to happen,” she said. “Where do you draw the line? What kind of assistance is it acceptable to provide the Taliban?”

Ms. Sanok said people who oppose ICRC’s assistance to the Taliban worry whether al Qaeda will be the next to benefit from such training. “If Osama bin Laden came into an ICRC training camp and said, ‘I want to be trained,’ how would ICRC react?” she said.

Contrasting the U.S. military’s assistance with that provided by ICRC, she said there is a difference between providing care and providing training. “By training and providing medical kits to Afghan civilians, the ICRC is creating a capability among those Afghan civilians to go and do this themselves. ISAF is not doing that.”

Mr. Cardon described the training provided at the medical camps as basic first aid, “enough to ensure that someone wounded in the field will be able to reach a hospital or a medical facility without dying on the trip there … or without a serious impact on his health.” Participants also are educated on the Geneva Conventions. At the end of the three-day camp, they are given basic medical supplies at no cost.

An Obama administration official said the ICRC and some nongovernmental groups have an active international campaign to reach out to armed non-state actors and try to persuade them to comply with international laws of war.

“It’s all on the up and up,” the official said.

However, the official noted that success with the Taliban, which has competing factions, has been mixed — and “nonexistent” with regard to al Qaeda.

The ICRC has been conducting such camps in Afghanistan since 2006. It has provided similar assistance to rebels fighting in Sudan’s Darfur province and Hamas militants fighting in the Gaza Strip.

“The idea of this is to have contact with people that are involved in the current hostility,” said Mr. Cardon, pointing out that Afghan police receive similar training.

The ICRC does not hand over combatants to law enforcement authorities. “ICRC is not a judge … it is not a policeman,” Mr. Cardon said. “The role of the ICRC is to assist and protect victims of armed conflict.”

In its report, the ICRC noted that the armed conflict in Afghanistan is taking a heavy toll on health services in the country. It said that “even basic first aid is often lacking, let alone advanced war surgery. And when health care is available, it is not always easy to get it. The recent offensive in Marjah, Helmand, is a case in point.”

The U.S. military is engaged in an offensive in Kandahar province aimed at rooting out the Taliban.

An unidentified Afghan Red Crescent Society volunteer was quoted in the report as saying, “Even after the fighting is over in a particular area, we’re having difficulty transporting patients to doctors. Mines, checkpoints and general insecurity stop us getting through safely.”

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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