Foreign aid agencies operating out of Afghanistan say they are “hanging on by our fingernails” after a in Jalalabad in which six people were killed.
Humanitarian organisations were on Thursday reassessing their presence in the increasingly volatile region following the latest in a string of attacks targeting foreign charities.
Save the Children confirmed four of its staff were killed along with a member of the security forces and a passerby after a suicide car bomb was detonated outside the office in Nangarhar province,and gunmen stormed the building leading to a 10-hour siege.
The charity’s chief executive, Kevin Watkins, said: “We are trying to get a clearer picture of what happened and why it happened. Until we do that it is difficult to make a long-term assessment.”
He said that in countries such as the security environment was very localised and staff were still assessing whether they were specifically targeted.
The attack, claimed by Islamic State, led to Save the Children temporarily suspending programmes across Afghanistan, with offices shut across the country.
Watkins vowed the organisation would continue its programmes there despite the growing threat to aid workers.
He said: “There are two things we are absolutely committed to. We are asking people to operate in a very dangerous environment and we have to look after our staff. Yet people in Afghanistan are driven by this mission so we are committed to continuing our programme.”
The charity runs education initiatives for women and girls as well as sanitation and water projects and help for refugees returning to Pakistan.
Watkins said it was time to “draw a line in the sand” and for the international community to take stock and reflect on the principles set out by the Geneva conventions.
The last few years have been marred by an escalation in the number of assaults on humanitarian and development workers. Five Save the Children workers died in Afghanistan in 2015 and others were injured or abducted.
“This is part of a generalised failure to adhere to humanitarian principles and law and to abide by the Geneva conventions. You don’t bomb schools, you don’t bomb hospitals, you don’t target aid workers,” said Watkins.
The Norwegian Refugee Council, which has 13 field offices and 1,400 staff in Afghanistan, said it would reassess its position following the Jalalabad attack.
The organisation’s secretary general, Jan Egeland, said the growing violence had left humanitarian organisations “hanging on by our fingernails”.
He said: “We will be among those who will have to reassess the situation. We will sit down and reflect – can we continue and how can we continue?”
Afghanistan presents one of the most dangerous working environments for humanitarians, but despite the challenging conditions 150 humanitarian partners assisted more than 3.4 million people in the first nine months of 2017.
In the same year, 17 aid workers were killed and 32 injured, according to figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was recently in Afghanistan following 30 years of continuous presence in the country after a series of targeted attacks on its staff.
In October, it released a statement saying it had no choice but to drastically reduce its presence, particularly in the north where it closed two offices in Maimana and Kunduz.
The ICRC spokeswoman, Andrea Catta Preta, said the charity had no plans to further reduce its operations.
“We have already reviewed our operations in Afghanistan after losing seven colleagues last year. We laid off 143 resident colleagues and 33 of our foreign staff.
“We had to find a different way of operating in the country. To avoid the exposure of our staff we limited our physical presence to the urban centres. We no longer go to remote areas. What we are doing is pulling our beneficiaries towards our offices and they are coming to us to receive the services.”
The organisation, which continues to employ 1,800 resident staff and 100 from overseas, supports the Afghan Red Crescent clinics across the country. It also runs seven physical rehabilitation centres, which treated 139,000 patients in 2017 and operates a network of taxis that provide first aid and transport to clinics for those wounded in conflict.
Catta Preta said: “What has happened in Jalalabad is extremely shocking and we are trying to analyse the current situation. We are seeing the humanitarian space is being more and more reduced but what we cannot do is build walls around us to protect ourselves, because then you lose the access the beneficiaries are meant to have to us and us to them.”
She added: “We can’t close ourselves off in bunkers, otherwise what is the point of being here? We need to be able to provide this assistance.Humanitarian aid workers should not be a target. We are here to help people and we should be allowed to provide assistance in safety.”
Médecins Sans Frontières said all its operations were running normally in Afghanistan but declined to comment further.