The top U.N. envoy for Afghanistan is warning ethnic strife and violence are jeopardizing peacekeeping and reconstruction efforts in southeastern Afghanistan. The deteriorating security situation is prompting many aid groups to suspend vital services.
Anita Anastacio checks in twice a day from her base in Kabul with the Mercy Corps office in the southern city of Kandahar. The news is never good. Mercy Corps, a non-governmental aid group with more than a quarter-century of work in southern Afghanistan, has suspended many of its operations in the country.
The reason: escalating violence much of it targeting foreigners.
On March 27, Ricardo Mungia, a Swiss citizen of El Salvadoran origin, working for the International Committee of the Red Cross, was pulled from his vehicle in southern Oruzgun Province and murdered by suspected Taleban gunmen. His attackers warned his Afghan co-workers that they too would be killed if they continued to work with foreigners.
The incident prompted foreign aid groups long active in the region, like Mercy Corps, Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children, to suspend many of their projects and pull their foreign staff back to Kabul. Mercy Corps' Anita Anastacio says aid workers are used to risk but the current climate of violence and intimidation is the worst she has seen in years.
"For me, I have been here throughout, during the mujahadeen times, during the Taleban time here. I came back in 2001, and I have to say that for the first time I do not feel secure in this country, where throughout all the other times I felt secure," she said.
It is not only foreign aid workers who are affected by the violence. Thousands of Afghans employed in food-for-work programs across southeastern Afghanistan have been sent home as programs have been suspended. In Mercy Corps' case, 3,000 out of 5,000 workers are now unemployed.
Representatives of aid agencies are calling on U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan to step up security in the region to stop the almost daily attacks against the remaining aid workers - most of whom are Afghan.
Coalition officials say they are making progress by dispatching small teams of forces to the region to deal with violence and help with reconstruction. They are also training Afghanistan's new national army, which has already begun significant operations in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
Colonel Roger King, the coalition spokesman at Bagram Air Base, says aid agencies should not be intimidated.
"A lot of the instability has to do with the perception of the people," colonel King said. " As long as we have folks who stand around and say it is not safe then that becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are areas where it is not safe, I am not going to deny that. Then, there are other areas where it is probably safer than it has a reputation for being. And, there are areas where there are going to be friction points that we do not see because they have nothing to do with the war as we are fighting it against terrorists."
Colonel King says even though major combat operations in Afghanistan are now largely over, operations are continuing against the remnants of Afghanistan's former Taleban leaders and al-Qaida terrorists who were given refuge under the Taleban.
But he says coalition forces are not really responsible for disarming locals who might be engaging in activities such as extortion and criminal violence and contributing to local instability. That job he says belongs to the United Nations.
For their part U.N. officials are warning of dire consequences if the situation in southern and eastern Afghanistan is not stabilized soon. Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. Special Envoy for Afghanistan recently told the Security Council that the upsurge in violence is threatening to "cast a long shadow over the whole Afghan peace process and indeed, over the whole future of Afghanistan."