Christian Aid called on Wednesday for a clear separation between humanitarian and the military and political process in Afghanistan.
The aid agency warned that military involvement in humanitarian operations was causing some sectors of society to question their motives.
"Over the past four years the involvement of international military forces in humanitarian and development work has made it impossible for NGOs and UN agencies to occupy space between the warring parties," said Robin Greenwood, the organisation’s head of Christian Aid Asia and Middle East division.
"Increasingly NGO work is threatened by communities who see it as part of someone else’s agenda."
Christian Aid said that the political and military drive to "win hearts and minds" tended to overlap with the work of development agencies, making it difficult for people to differentiate between aid workers and the military.
It warned that the lack of distinction was compromising the safety of aid workers across the country.
"When communities see military people driving unmarked vehicles or acting as aid workers, they are confused," said Serena Di Matteo, Christian Aid’s country manager in Afghanistan. "They don’t know who is doing what.
"There are large areas where security won’t permit us to work safely, so we can’t simply work wherever there are communities in need," she added.
"This is not merely a matter of getting caught in the crossfire. There are parts of the country which are simply no-go zones for our partners and staff."
Christian Aid is pressing for a review of the military operations in Afghanistan to identify differences between military and NGO approaches to aid.
The aid agency said that a community's acceptance of civilian aid workers should not be jeopardised by the military “invading” the humanitarian space.
"The population here needs a lot of support," added Di Matteo. Afghanistan is the poorest non-African country in the world, with almost half the population (42 per cent ) lives below the poverty line.
"Our work in Afghanistan is solely about tackling poverty and empowering poor and marginalised people to improve the conditions of their own lives.
"War fuels poverty and injustice. Security undermines development and reconstruction.
"In Afghanistan decades of conflict have created a cycle, where war’s destabilising bi-products themselves fuel continuing violence."
Christian Aid said the vital work of supporting Afghanistan's poorest communities could not wait until the gunfire was over.
Di Matteo added, however, that the kidnapping of aid workers had become a major threat.
"It’s good business for anti-government elements and criminal groups who can use people to gain leverage with governments, to raise money to run their operations."
Much of the Afghan population are supportive of a continued international presence, the aid agency added, saying that most feared things would go back to the way they were under the Taliban if the aid agencies left the country.
"Christian Aid has a track record in Afghanistan, we have stayed through three regime changes – we’re in it for the long haul and intend to stay on in whatever way we can," insisted Di Matteo.
"If all of a sudden all aid workers decided to pull out, where would that leave people living here? It would mean that all the work we have already done is wasted. We cannot abandon what we are doing half way through."
The aid agency said that the continued success of effective humanitarian work depended on clear distinctions being made between military projects and assistance from development agencies.
Greenwood added, "The security forces have a vital role to play in ensuring that ordinary Afghan women and men can go about their daily lives and build their future free from the threat and reality of violence. But the needs of the country are vast and complex.
"The solution must combine military activity with political efforts and humanitarian initiatives. The political settlement needs to involve a wide range of stakeholders from inside and outside Afghanistan, with only one precondition: that they uphold the security, dignity and rights of all Afghans."
Military campaign creating no-go zones for aid workers in Afghanistan
Published 27 November 2008