Peacekeeping: Treating The Enemy

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November 22, 2015: In Afghanistan there was recently another nasty incident involving a foreign NGO, the Afghan government and the American military. This one was all about an October 2015 incident when Afghan commandos, under fire from what later turned out to be an NGO (MSF, or Doctors Without Borders) run hospital, asked their American advisors (a nearby SOCOM ground controller team) to call in an air strike on the Taliban gunmen. Since SOCOM personnel worked with and often trained the Afghan commandos, they trusted them and got the GPS coordinates from the Afghans and called in an AC-130 gunship to take out the enemy gunmen.  This the AC-130 did but later MSF accused the Americans of deliberately firing on a hospital and killing patients and MSF personnel. The media accepted this accusation as true, as MSF expected and the U.S. government promptly apologized. Later it came out that the American air controllers had no eyes on the target and were acting on a report from the trusted Afghan troops. The AC-130 crew later revealed that they could not see any indications that the building was a hospital. Since AC-130 attacks are all captured on video MSF admitted that the building in question was not marked, as stipulated in international agreements, as a medical facility. The Afghans had no confidence in MSF seeing as this NGO was notorious for treating and protecting enemy wounded and had even discharged civilian patients to make room for the growing number of Taliban casualties. Add to this the fact that MSF does this regularly and is notorious for its open dislike of the United States, especially the American military and you can see how this incident left a lot of people angry. MSF was unapologetic which was also not surprising. Then again this is an increasingly common problem.

NGOs (non-governmental organizations, like the UN, Red Cross, MSF and thousands more) are often more of a problem than a cure when it comes to peacekeeping or dealing with Islamic terrorists. In the last few years many NGOs have also taken to feuding with each other about how to handle the growing money shortages they have to deal with. The demand for contributions to buy food and other aid supplies has been increasing faster than donor nations (who supply most of this money) are willing to provide. This is in large part because of persistent problems with a lot of the aid being stolen by local bandits and corrupt officials or diverted to other uses by NGOs. There are other problems as well. Increasingly people in the countries NGOs deliver aid to complain about the NGOs being more concerned about their own safety and comfort than in making the lives of the locals better. But it's not as simple as that. There are also disagreements within the NGO community about how to handle delivering aid in areas swarming with bandits, Islamic terrorists and other bad actors. The NGOs that continue to send people to these dangerous areas complain that many NGOs that used to be there with them are now snagging a lot of aid money and moving to some well-guarded urban area and spending the aid money on studies, seminars and research into how to achieve peace and prosperity via diplomacy, negotiation and creative financing. The NGOs still out in the field consider this growing interest in this new “non-contact” (with the people needing the aid) approach a craven copout and a diversion of desperately needed funds from buying food and emergency services for people.

The NGOs tried to keep this dispute from becoming a public debate as they all agree that putting these issues into the news would probably reduce contributions even more. NGOs are, for the most part, charitable organizations that take money from individuals, organizations and governments, and use it for charitable work in foreign countries. The Red Cross is one of the oldest, and best known NGO (dating back to the 19th century). In the mid-20th century, the UN became the largest NGO. Actually, the Catholic Church could be considered one of the first major NGOs, as it organized large scale charity efforts over a thousand years ago. But in the late 20th century, the number of NGOs grew explosively. Now there are thousands of them, providing work for hundreds of thousands of people. The NGO elite are well educated people, usually from Western countries who solicit donations or go off to disaster areas and apply money, equipment and supplies to alleviate some natural or man-made disaster. Governments have been so impressed by the relative efficiency of NGOs that they have contracted them to perform foreign aid and disaster relief work that was once done by government employees.

Problems, however, have developed over the years. The Western employees of NGOs, while not highly paid, are infused with a certain degree of idealism, and bring to disaster areas a bunch of outsiders who have a higher standard of living and different lifestyles than the locals. Several decades ago, the main thing these outsiders brought with them was food and medical care. The people on the receiving end were pretty desperate, and grateful for the help. But NGOs have branched out into development and social programs.

These new activities caused unexpected problems with the local leadership. Development programs disrupt the existing economic, and political, relations. This is especially the case if the NGOs try to change the way things are done. The local leaders are often not happy with this, as the NGOs are not always willing to work closely with the existing power structure. While the local worthies may be exploitative, and even corrupt, they are local, and they do know more about popular attitudes and ideals than the foreigners.

NGOs with social programs (education, especially educating women, new lifestyle choices and more power for people who don't usually have much) often run into conflict with the local leadership. Naturally, the local politicians and traditional leaders have resisted, or even fought back. Not surprisingly local governments will sometimes try to regulate or expel NGOs. That often includes local NGOs who were doing some of the same work as the foreign ones. In these cases the government is responding to complaints from old school tribal and religious leaders who are unhappy with all these foreigners or urban locals pushing alien ideas and upsetting the ancient ways in the countryside.

NGOs are not military organizations, but they can fight back. They do this mainly through the media, because they also use favorable media coverage to propel their fund raising efforts. NGOs will also ask, or demand, that the UN or other foreign governments send in peacekeeping troops to protect the NGOs from hostile locals. This had disastrous results in Somalia during the early 1990s. Some NGOs remained, or came back, to Somalia after the peacekeepers left. These NGOs learned how to cope on their own, although with increasing difficulty. The NGOs hired local muscle for protection, as well as cutting deals with the local warlords. But eventually the local Islamic radicals became upset at the alien ideas these Western do-gooders brought with them, and began to chase the NGOs out.

MSF manages to avoid expulsion by providing much needed medical services but in a place like Afghanistan this means treating Islamic terrorists who have been wounded and trying to prevent the local government from knowing. But the local officials do know and usually consider it the cost of medical aid that is supposed to be free.

 

 


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