Crime in Afghanistan deters aid distribution

International groups halt activities

government seems largely powerless

April 06, 2003|By Chris Kraul | Chris Kraul,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KABUL, Afghanistan - A spate of violence, including the murder of a Red Cross worker, is causing international aid agencies to suspend operations in parts of Afghanistan and prompting renewed concerns about this war-scarred nation's chances of returning to health.

The government of President Hamid Karzai acknowledges the crime wave, one that includes armed robberies, carjackings, assaults and extortion, often targeting international donor agencies.

But his administration seems powerless to curb the violence and acknowledges that there is no short-term solution.

What is certain is that with its economy still inert after 25 years of conflict, and the central government unable to collect more than a fraction of the revenue it needs to finance its operations, Afghanistan depends on outside aid agencies to deliver basic services such as health care, education and water.

But crime has reached such a level that most international agencies have suspended field operations in the southern third of the country, where much of the violence is concentrated.

Many suspended operations after the killing last month of Red Cross water engineer Ricardo Munguia, 39, in southern Uruzgan province. A spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said the relief agency is still considering "if and when to take up operations again."

The general climate of insecurity was driven home again Thursday when a friend of Karzai's, Haji Gilani, was killed as he walked with his nephew past their home in Deh Rawood in Uruzgan province. The younger man was also killed. Uruzgan Gov. Jan Mohammed blamed remnants of the deposed Taliban regime.

While the world's attention has been focused on the war in Iraq, the recent violence has underscored the fact that the war on terrorism - which began here after the Sept. 11 attacks - is a long way from over and that instability is a huge impediment to Afghanistan's recovery.

Foreigners or high-profile Afghans aren't the only potential victims. Anyone driving on roads outside the cities is risking a shakedown or a carjacking at an illegal roadblock. The country's numerous warlords and their armed militiamen routinely commandeer a portion of goods being transported from town to town or declare a customs duty on them.

But foreign aid agencies are common targets because they are known to have resources. Last month, a UNICEF office in Kabul, the capital, was held up by a half-dozen gunmen and robbed of $250,000. On Wednesday, a Care International office in Jalrez, 20 miles from here, was taken over by 16 armed men and looted of computers, cash and a car.

The men told the staff they were being robbed because they were "spies for America."

The crimes are attributed to a variety of causes, ranging from economic hardship to sympathy with besieged Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to simple corruption, sometimes on a vast scale.

A high-ranking European diplomat, who asked not to be identified, said that without peace and security, the investment that the country needs to create jobs and infrastructure won't be forthcoming.

Chris Kraul is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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