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NATO’s Illegal Provincial Reconstruction Teams

Using humanitarian aid as a weapon violates international law and puts aid workers at risk

Sunday 8 November 2009, by Matthew J. Nasuti (Former U.S. Air Force Captain)

by: Matthew J. Nasuti, former U.S. Air Force Captain and U.S. State Department Official

NATO operates 26 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Afghanistan, with a goal to add teams to every one of its 34 provinces. The PRTs primarily consist of military personnel, with a mix of civilian aid officials and technical experts. They serve a dual function of supporting military operations and aiding civilian reconstruction and are an integral part of NATO’s counterinsurgency (COIN) war plan.

C. Stuart Calison, Ph.D, a Senior Development Economist with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), recently released the October 2, 2009 memo he wrote to the Director of USAID in which he complained that Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was interfering with USAID’s COIN projects and objectives in Afghanistan’s border region. The memo reflects a growing reality, which is that all American aid seems cloaked with military goals and objectives.

One of the many problems with such a transformation in policy is that it violates international law. Another is that militarizing aid places civilian aid personnel at risk as they are seen as simply a tool of the Pentagon.

The Fourth Geneva Convention, Part I, Article 5, essentially provides that if a military force such as the Taliban “is satisfied” that a civilian aid worker “is definitely suspected of” hostile activity, such aid worker could lose his or her protected status and would become a legitimate target. Thus, civilians who accompany or provide services and support to the armed forces could fall outside of the definition of “civilians” as set out in the Third Geneva Convention, Article 4.

Major General Michael Tucker of ISAF-Kabul was quoted by Kevin Baron in the September 15, 2009, edition of Stars and Stripes as stating that NATO uses humanitarian aid as a “key factor” in its “population-centric operations.” This prompted Stephen Cornish, the director of bilateral programs for CARE Canada, to state that:

NATO had placed “a counterinsurgency umbrella” over humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, which now places aid workers at risk.

He went on to tell Stars and Stripes that aid organizations are being targeted if there is any suspicion of collaboration with the American forces. Stars and Stripes then interviewed a Taliban spokesman who stated:

“We only respect truly neutral and independent aid organizations
that do not work at the behest of American and Western forces.”

In April 2009, a group consisting of 11 humanitarian organizations, including Oxfam, CARE, ActionAid, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children and the International Rescue Committee, released a report entitled: “Caught in the Conflict.” It criticized the increasing militarization of aid and stressed that military forces have a legal obligation to clearly distinguish themselves from civilians. It reported a doubling of NGO personnel killed in 2008, compared to 2007. It stated that on average, three Afghans are summarily executed every four days due to their association with the government or foreign forces. It also stated:

“NGO projects have been forced to close due to visits from PRTs or foreign donor agencies in heavily armed escorts. In the aftermath of such visits, communities have informed NGOs that they can no longer guarantee the safety of project staff.”

In its April 3, 2009, press release, Oxfam summarized the “Caught in the Conflict” report as follows:

“The report warns the military are blurring the distinction between aid workers and soldiers by doing extensive humanitarian and assistance work for counter-insurgency purposes and by using unmarked white vehicles, which are conventionally only used by the UN and aid agencies. This undermines local perceptions of the independence and impartiality of aid agencies and therefore increases the risk to aid workers. The agencies also warn that the increasing distortion of humanitarian and development assistance for military aims could undermine long-term stability.”

Article 37 of the Geneva Convention’s Additional Protocol I (Prohibition of Perfidy) prohibits the “feigning” of civilian (i.e.,non-combatant) or UN status, which the use of the unmarked white vehicles by American and French forces might constitute. In addition, there are the repeated stories in northern Afghanistan of the military using unmarked civilian helicopters to ferry troops into combat. See the Institute for War and Peace Reporting’s October 26, 2009 article “Helicopter Rumor Refuses to Die” by Ahmad Kawoosh in Mazar-e-Sharif.

One of the reasons for the mix of military and civilian personnel in the PRTs is that countries such as the United States have refused to provide a sufficient number of civilian specialists, thus pushing the military to take the lead. Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Times reported on May 4, 2009 that the U.S. State Department, after eight years of war in Afghanistan, still had yet to begin ramping up its corps of civilian reconstruction experts.

This author concurs with Mr. Ackerman. The State Department remains bureaucratically opposed to both the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and successive Secretaries of State have refused to remove Senior Executive Service (SES) officials from the Department who have been sabotaging the war effort. As a result, the military surges while the State Department continues to dither. Intentionally refusing to assist in the war effort borders on criminal conduct.

Mr. Ackerman also reported that, on April 21, 2009, the Afghan government put forward a proposal entitled: “The Civilian Surge Plan.” It calls for 676 foreign specialists to assist Afghan Government ministries in aid distribution and reconstruction efforts. In response, the U.S. State Department only identified 51 experts it could send. To its credit the Afghan government’s plan opposes the mixing of civilian and military personnel and recommends the phase out of the mixed PRTs.

To-date, the Obama Administration has apparently not implemented any portion of the Afghan Government’s proposal. As a result, civilian aid workers in Afghanistan are increasingly subject to attack, with a corresponding decline in humanitarian aid and stability.

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