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Oct. 28 2009 - 7:07 am | 18 views | 4 recommendations | 1 comment

Afghanistan: UN security lapse is inexcusable. Period.

I try to avoid posts like this, weighing in with a strongly held opinion about something I have no first hand information of. The initial reports are also often inaccurate.But this is the new media, where uninformed speculation seems to be the way ahead, so I’m going to break my own rule.

First,my sincere condolences to the family’s who lost loved ones during the UN attack in Kabul, in which 6 UN staffers, two security guards, and one Afghan civilian, were reportedly killed.

Secondly. It’s inexcusable on the UN’s part for not adequately protecting their staff. This is year 8 of the war in Afghanistan, year 6 1/2 of the war in Iraq–eight years that NGO’s, journalists, aid workers, the UN, and the US have operated in a highly dangerous and volatile environment. Environments where Westerners, or those working with Western organizations, are high value targets. In Afghanistan alone,  8 NGO workers and six staffers were killed in that past 6 months, according to this report. Last year, the death toll for aid workers in that country was over 30. The report goes on:

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were involved in 42 security incidents during this July-September quarter for a total of 114 this year. Much like last year, this quarter was a deadly one for NGOs, with 8 NGO staff killed and 6 more injured in the past 3 months, bringing the yearly total to 18 killed and 6 injured. NGOs were again subjected to a series of serious attacks including murders, ambushes, abductions, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and complex attacks. Although NGO incidents are less frequent overall this year compared to 2008 (116 vs. 141), it is predominantly due to a drop in less serious incidents and is therefore not indicative of an improving security situation.

 The UN’s experience in Iraq–where a horrible bombing killed 22 of their staff in August 2003, along with the beloved UN diplomat Sergio DeMello–should have driven this lesson home. But, at least from what I can glean from the press reports so far, it seems the “guest house” where their staff was staying was quite vulnerable.

My question is: how is that possible?

From my experience dealing with the UN, NGO’s, and others in the  international community, I can offer a few guesses. There’s a general attitude among Western NGO’s that they don’t want to be “seen as part of the occupation.” I would put the UN in this category. This is delusional. The Taliban, or Al Qaeda linked terrorist groups, don’t do nuance very well. Whether you’re Swedish or Dutch of French you might as well be an American. And clearly, in this case, the Taliban targeted the UN because they see them as the enemy–this attack, announced a Taliban spokesperson, was a “warning” for those working on the election. They see the UN as helping prop up the government in Kabul.

Now, I understand this attitude–not wanting to be viewed as a part of the occupation, not wanting to be seen as “American-friendly”–and I have some sympathy for it. American officials operating in Afghanistan and Iraq are often mocked for being totally out of touch and having ridiculous security arrangements, criticized for working with companies like Blackwater and DynCorp. It’s true, intense security cuts you off from the local population, gives you a bubble reality, and it makes it much more difficult to get a sense of what’s really going on. But it also helps keep you alive. The UN even views private security companies as the bad guys, yes, sometimes for good reason.

(The more difficult question is: when there is still an active war going on, how much can NGO’s(or the UN) or the State Department really accomplish? In most warzones, diplomats and civilians get evacuated, not sent into the fray. Getting killed to redo a rigged election, where the winner will either be Corrupt Candidate A or Corrupt Candidate B? I’m not trying to undermine the sacrifice of these folks; they all chose to be there, probably wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, and most likely really believed in what they were doing. My aim is at the higher-ups, at the insanity of the overall nation building exercise when there’s serious fighting going on. There’s a time to let your guard down and mix with the locals, and there’s time when you got to have your shit wired tight.)

Here’s a question for you. How many American State Department officials have been killed in Iraq? Very few–about 5 according to the AP, and that includes security personnel. In Afghanistan? I couldn’t find a single incident. This out of the thousands of State officials who’ve served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past nine years. Compare that to the UN’s record–an organization that has had a much smaller presence in Iraq, and about an equal presence in Afghanistan, and  it doesn’t look too good. Also, you have to look at the nature of the attacks–the American deaths have been largely wrong place, wrong time deaths, largely a matter of bad luck. The deadly attacks on the UN–both at this guest house in the Kabul and the Baghdad bombing–have been well coordinated attacks on UN facilities, facilities that have not been very well protected. In other words, the US has done a much better job than the UN of protecting its civilian officials.

What lessons can we draw from this horrible incident? That maybe Blackwater isn’t so bad after all? That if you’re going to send your staff to dangerous places, it makes sense to protect them, even if it means losing some access to the local population? That the UN needs to do a serious review of its security procedures? 

 It sounds like the guards did try to fend off the attack, and were overwhelmed. This might have been the case. Regardless, the job of UN’s security team is to keep those civilians they are protecting alive, and that clearly didn’t happen today. The UN has only themselves to blame for this tremendous loss.


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    I'm the author of "I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story" and a regular contributor to GQ. Previously, I was the Baghdad correspondent for Newsweek magazine. My work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, Foreign Policy, the L.A. Times, and other publications of repute. This blog will focus on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other newsy foreign-ish things.

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