President Obama announced in December 2009 that the United States would send an additional 30,000 troops and increase civilian support and financial assistance to Afghanistan. However, NGOs that provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan have long been in conflict with the U.S. government about how to best distribute this aid. These NGOs are now voicing their concern that the proposed increase in civilian support will undermine their humanitarian work in Afghanistan.

The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), which oversees humanitarian aid from over one hundred national and international NGOs in Afghanistan, has expressed concern that too much of the aid going to Afghanistan is tied to military operations. For example, the vast majority of aid coming from the United States, the largest aid donor to Afghanistan, is distributed through the military or through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  This aid is then used to support counterinsurgency operations by only going to regions where the U.S. military operates and to activities that the military approves.

ACBAR and other NGOs, such as Oxfam and CARE International, feel that they are being forced to divert their aid to support the counterinsurgency efforts of the U.S. military, which compromises the NGOs’ independence: “If we are forced to be involved in counterinsurgency activities . . . our acceptance in the communities will be demolished,” said Lex Kassenberg, country director for CARE International. When local communities see NGOs operating only in those areas that the U.S. military has secured, it creates the impression that these NGOs are an extension of the U.S. military rather than independent organizations that provide aid regardless of local support for or resistance to the U.S. military presence.

The U.S. government contends that aid organizations would not be able to operate in Afghanistan unless they work with the military. Many regions where NGOs had previously operated independently have become too unstable for NGOs to continue working. As the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, NGOs struggle to work independently of the military. Mohammad Hashim Mayar, the deputy director of ACBAR, believes that the increase in troop levels will lead to more instability. “The U.S. troops doubled in number in 2009. Parallel to this, [the] security situation deteriorated. [The] north, which was relatively stable, became unstable.”

Mayar worries that the upcoming troop and civilian surges that President Obama has promised will continue to undermine the independence of aid organizations. “Humanitarian space is shrinking from two directions,” stated Mayar. “[First from] insecurity and [second from] the activities of [the] civil-military [surge promised by President Obama], which blurs the line [between] civil-military personnel and humanitarian actors.” Mayar notes that this combination causes the Afghan people to become suspicious.The U.S. government believes that the path to effective humanitarian assistance and development is through creating a stable security situation. However, the NGOs, some of which have been working in Afghanistan since long before USAID became involved, believe that long-term stability and security will only be assured when aid organizations are able to work independently of military operations. Once that happens, says Mayar, “There will be more job opportunities, the Afghan workforce will be diverted from military to reconstruction and development; the Afghan government will be strengthened and its reputation improved.” NGOs have requested that at least 10 percent of the proposed U.S. military budget for Afghanistan be spent on reconstruction and development.  Finding the correct balance is critical as independent NGO work is essential to the long-term stability of Afghanistan.