KABUL: After two attacks on humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan in less than a week, aid groups are facing the prospect of a new and ruthless stage in the 12-year Taliban insurgency in which nothing is off-limits.
The targeting of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) by gunmen and suicide bombers indicates that no group can assume it is safe.
The IOM admitted it was "mystified" why its low-key compound in Kabul was stormed by Taliban fighters last Friday, triggering a battle with security forces that lasted several hours as the city shook with explosions and gunfire.
And the ICRC, which had its Jalalabad offices attacked on Wednesday, is perhaps the most respected aid group among Afghans – renowned for its neutrality and for maintaining good relations with all sides, including the insurgents.
"This is a warning for every international organisation here," Najib Tajali, deputy director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), told AFP.
"These aid groups have no political, government or military ties, and they are much needed, so they should be shown respect. The recent assaults are very strange and absolutely shocking."
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the IOM attack – in which four militants, one policeman and two civilians died – saying that their target had been a guesthouse allegedly used by Afghan and US intelligence staff.
But no group has yet claimed the ICRC assault, where one guard and two militants died.
In both attacks, the militants' primary goal appeared to be killing foreign staff, though only one IOM expatriate was seriously wounded.
At the IOM's compound, 10 foreigners hid for two terrifying hours in a reinforced strong-room as insurgents tried to kill them before Afghan Special Forces carried out a successful rescue mission.
"The ICRC attack is particularly disturbing as they have got such a strong reputation here," said Kate Clark, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
"They are not just another aid group. From an Afghan point of view, they have been here through thick and thin, even during civil war in Kabul in the mid-1990s when very few organisations stayed.
"They're known for their neutrality."
The work of the ICRC, which was lavishly praised by the Taliban only last year, includes returning dead bodies to all sides in the conflict, tracing detainees, amputee rehabilitation and providing emergency medical care.
"Pure self-interest should cause the Taliban to leave the ICRC alone," said Clark.
"The ICRC is symbolic in that they are the last to ever leave. If the ICRC isn't safe and off-limits, then who is?"
No ICRC office had ever been hit before in 25 years of operating in Afghanistan, though a Swiss engineer was murdered by the Taliban in 2003.
The threat of radical insurgents trying to banish any international presence from the country bodes ill for the future as the US-led military coalition prepares to withdraw next year.
Massive foreign aid and investment is needed to develop the transport system, power supply, education and health care, with the economy destined to rely on outside funding for many years.
Aid agencies and humanitarian workers pulling out at the same time as the NATO-led troops would increase the risk of economic collapse and a return to the extremism and instability of the Taliban era.
The ICRC on Thursday halted staff movements across Afghanistan and closed its Jalalabad office, but other groups said their activities continue unchanged as security procedures are reviewed.
The aid effort in Afghanistan has overcome disasters before – 10 foreign workers, including six Americans, were killed in Badakhshan province in 2010.
"More time is required to assess whether the latest attacks are a game-changer," said an analyst at Pilgrims, a security firm with clients including NGOs in Afghanistan.
"All international organisations have operated under a degree of threat since 2001, and these attacks only underline that.
"There is a clear propaganda value to attacking aid targets to create war-weariness in those countries that contribute armed forces (to the NATO-led coalition).
"But, of course, the goal of removing international forces from Afghanistan is not new."
For the Afghan government, the fact that aid groups suddenly find themselves on the front-line is of little significance when the insurgency hits soldiers, officials and civilians every day.
"The militants don't have a clear target," Shafiqullah Tahiri, spokesman for the national intelligence agency, said on Thursday. "The aim is to create terror. That's all."
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