American aid worker assassinated in Pakistan

USAID contractor gunned down in city near volatile tribal region

November 13, 2008|By New York Times News Service

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - For the six months he helped execute the "hearts and minds" outreach of the United States in one of the most dangerous front lines of the American battle against militants, Stephen D. Vance had to balance a strategic mission with nearly daily concerns about his personal safety.

Yesterday, as he was arriving at his office in a residential area of turbulent Peshawar, he was shot and killed by gunmen, becoming the most prominent casualty of an increasingly troubled effort to use economic aid to undercut the hold of al-Qaida and the Taliban on Pakistan's tribal areas.

The assassination of Vance, 52, highlighted the problems inherent in the effort to bring development to one of the most underdeveloped and volatile regions of the world. It also raised new doubts about American efforts to undermine a major adversary in a stronghold that has proved largely impervious to both political and military pressure.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is spending $750 million to support economic development in the tribal areas of Pakistan. But congressional critics of the program have already questioned how the spending could be effective, or even monitored, if Americans could not visit the areas where the projects were under way.

"He was worried about his security; he was always talking security with me," said Khalid Aziz, a Pakistani development expert, who had worked with Vance since his arrival in Pakistan earlier this year.

A contractor hired by the development agency, Vance was forbidden for safety reasons to travel to the nearby hostile tribal region that was the focus of his efforts, colleagues said. He was confined to Peshawar, where he lived with his wife and five children, ages 1 to 13. But he traveled in an unarmored car, unlike American diplomats working at the U.S. consulate in Peshawar, who are required to be driven in bulletproof vehicles.

Lynne Tracy, the top U.S. diplomat in Peshawar, narrowly escaped a similar attack in August as she was driven in an armored vehicle in the same neighborhood, called University Town.

Though colleagues described Vance as committed to bringing U.S. aid to trouble spots, they said he felt frustrated that he could not go out and meet people, and instead had to glean his knowledge by inviting people to his office.

"He was committed but questioned the wisdom of doing it here," said a colleague who knew Vance well but who did not want to be named for fear of endangering his job. "He was aware of the danger. We talked about it often."

Vance's death comes as a vigorous debate is under way in Washington over whether more U.S. military effort or more U.S. development assistance - or more of both - is necessary to combat the growing power of the Taliban and al-Qaida in the tribal belt.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden is the author of legislation that calls for $15 billion in civilian assistance over the next decade for Pakistan, a significant increase over the level of U.S. civilian aid under the Bush administration.

Despite the questions about the effectiveness of the aid to the tribal region, there was a feeling in Washington that such assistance had to be tried, said Craig Cohen, the author of a study on U.S. and Pakistan relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"There is a sentiment that we need to be out there, but we know its danger," Cohen said. "There's a belief we want to do something more than military. We need an aid presence."

In Vance's case, that presence was quiet, yet still conspicuous. To blend in, he at times wore a shalwar kameez, the long tunic and baggy pants that Pakistani men commonly wear.

But there was barely rudimentary security at the office where he worked: no closed-circuit cameras and no real system of identifying visitors before they entered, associates said. It appeared his assailants were waiting for him, an American colleague said.

Seven spent bullet cartridges were recovered from the scene of his shooting, near the American Club, a social gathering place.

The brazen killing of such an experienced aid worker stunned U.S. and Pakistani officials in Peshawar but did not surprise some of them.

Security had collapsed to such an extent in the city, and the anti-American sentiment had become so high that U.S. officials and aid workers were often kept in "lock down" by the U.S. Consulate, meaning they had to work at home, or get permission from the consulate security officer to move from their home to the office.

"Ever since the Taliban started targeted assassinations against politicians a few months ago, it was almost inevitable that they would target U.S. aid efforts," said Joshua White, a research fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a specialist in Pakistan.

Some Pakistanis hired for USAID projects were driving into the tribal areas in vehicles "Taliban-style," meaning in double-cabin pickups that are the Taliban signature vehicles and with only light security, White said. But the workers knew this was exceedingly risky and could come to a bitter end, he said.

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