- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2014

Civil-society organizations that are providing crucial services, particularly in health and education, are being forced to shutter or scale back their operations in Afghanistan in the wake of a spike in violence that has claimed the lives of Westerners, including three Americans in Kabul on Thursday.

Western officials have been alarmed by a trend they say is putting at risk fragile gains made in areas such as girls’ education, which was banned when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001.

The Obama administration condemned the attack by an Afghan police officer at a hospital in Kabul on Thursday that claimed the lives of three Americans, including a physician, Dr. Jerry Umanos, who worked at the facility, and injured a woman.

“Any such attack on civilians at a hospital is despicable and cowardly,” said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

The gunman, who was working as an armed guard at the hospital run by the nonprofit Cure, shot himself. He was arrested after receiving treatment at the hospital.

Most aid and civil-society organizations in Afghanistan prefer not to rely on the U.S.-led coalition to provide them security cover. They worry that such an association would turn them into targets for the Taliban.

But in the absence of proper protection, many of these workers have been left vulnerable to attacks.

Security presents a “major challenge” for aid workers and civilians in Afghanistan, said Anastasia Isyuk, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has been working in Afghanistan for nearly 30 years.

The ICRC was forced to rethink its presence in Afghanistan after an attack on its offices in the eastern city of Jalalabad in May.

“Managing the fine balance between taking action — with the inherent danger of being in the wrong place at the wrong time or, worse, becoming a direct target — and operating from a distance, by ‘remote control,’ is a challenge for all those involved in humanitarian work in conflict zones,” Ms. Isyuk said.

State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki on Thursday described Afghanistan as a “war zone.”

The State Department is working with the Pentagon and the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan to ensure the security of its personnel in the country, she said.

Attacks on Westerners in Afghanistan have increased sharply since before elections earlier this month.

An International Rescue Committee report this month found in a survey of its Afghan staff that security is their top concern.

“Despite real security concerns, the international community must not turn its back on the Afghan people,” said David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee.

“The end of international military operations in Afghanistan is the time to redouble humanitarian efforts, not scale them back,” he added.

U.S. combat troops are expected to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year. Other members of the coalition in Afghanistan are also pulling out their troops.

This security transition combined with the political change, marked by elections earlier this month, have added to unease and uncertainty within the international community in Afghanistan.

The elections are expected to go to a second round, as no clear winner has emerged in the contest to succeed Hamid Karzai, who is barred by law from running for a third consecutive term as president.

Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, have also been hit by what one Western official in Kabul described as a “resource crunch.”

A shift in international attention away from Afghanistan has meant that local NGOs that were once recipients of Western funds are now struggling for money, said the Western official, who discussed the issue on the condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly.

While this combination of factors has hit the NGO community hard, there are some that intend to weather the storm.

“Our intention is to remain for as long as there are needs to be addressed,” said Ms. Isyuk of the ICRC.

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

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