Tag Archives: aid workers

Should the U.S. government negotiate with terrorists?

The safety of Americans abroad is a top priority for the U.S. government. Whether working in a U.S. embassy or on an aid mission, all American lives are valued. When these lives are taken hostage by terrorists, their rescue becomes extremely complex.

Chris Voss, CEO and founder of the Black Swan Group, said kidnappings of American hostages makes him angry.

Chris Voss is the founder and CEO of the Black Swan Group. “There are few people that have worked for the [U.S.] government that know as much about international kidnapping as I do,” he said. (Photo courtesy of the Black Swan Group)

Chris Voss is the founder and CEO of the Black Swan Group. “There are few people that have worked for the [U.S.] government that know as much about international kidnapping as I do,” he said. (Photo courtesy of the Black Swan Group)

“[It’s] a horrifying experience from our perspective, but for them it’s a means to an end. Usually they want to trade for money, for weapons, for political favors, or for publicity,” Voss said.

The Black Swan Group prepares its clients to handle the unpredictable. Voss has 24 years of FBI experience and was their lead international kidnapping negotiator.

He said that he has been involved with about 150 successful rescuing cases worldwide, some involving children, in countries like Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

In 2011, al-Qaida militants in Pakistan kidnapped an American named Warren Weinstein. He was accidently killed by a U.S. drone in January.

During his captivity the White House said it would not negotiate with terrorists for his release.

Elaine Weinstein released a statement after learning about her husband’s fatality: “We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families.”

A bipartisan amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, headed by Democratic Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and California Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican, called for the creation of a “hostage czar.” Weinstein was Rep. Delaney’s constituent.

The legislation, approved by the House of Representatives, includes an Interagency Hostage Recovery Coordinator. Some of the coordinator’s tasks would include engaging in rescue missions alongside all levels of the federal government and keeping families up-to-date with hostage-related developments.

The amendment, however, does not permit negotiations with terrorists.

Voss said he has not negotiated with terrorists in his career, but rather has been involved with “third-party intermediaries” or “proxies.”

Journalists like James Foley and Steve Sotloff, who were kidnapped and then killed by Islamic State militants, led many to question whether government bodies should negotiate with terrorists to secure the release of hostages.

If government agencies were to interact with terror groups, would their arrangements be honored? Would the terrorists demand more? Would everyday people be encouraged to kidnap Americans, knowing they could engage in extortion?

According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, about $165 million has been paid to terror organizations in the form of ransom money, primarily funded by European governments.

The U.S. government has secretly negotiated with terrorists, but not through publicized monetary means. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was kidnapped for five years by Taliban sympathizers in Afghanistan, was swapped for five Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Trading prisoners of war is not unique to the United States. In 2006, Israel Defense Forces solider Gilad Shalit, held captive by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas for five years, was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

Aid workers pay high price for USAID policy in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON –Security for aid workers in Afghanistan is deteriorating and nongovernment organizations blame U.S. development policies for putting more lives at risk.

The U.S. Agency for International Development requires that humanitarian aid projects in Afghanistan support the military’s war strategy, a policy that has made aid workers targets for the Taliban, nongovernment organizations say.

“There are more attacks on aid workers now,” said Ann Richard, vice president of government relations at the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernment organization with programs in Afghanistan. “Security for NGOs has gone in the opposite direction.”

USAID policies explicitly support the counterinsurgency war strategy in Afghanistan, and the agency allocates funding to nongovernment organizations based on how their projects “contribute to COIN goals,” according to agency guidelines. COIN is shorthand for counterinsurgency, the war strategy used in the Iraq and Afghanistan that coordinates military force with development and peacekeeping efforts to defeat insurgent groups.

USAID grants require aid organizations work closely with the military on projects such as “battlefield clean up,” where aid workers are sent to clean up post-conflict damage in communities where there was heavy fighting, Richard said.

Merging nongovernment aid projects with military operations has tarnished the apolitical, impartial image critical to the safety of aid workers, many organizations say. The general assumption among Afghans is that aid organizations are working for the U.S. military, said one aid worker who helps run medical programs for an organization that has worked in Afghanistan for more than 15 years.

“If there’s anger at the military, then often times the NGOs will have to pay for it,” said the aid worker, who asked not to be named for fear he might jeopardize the organization’s programs.

Three aid workers were killed in July when suicide bombers attacked the compound of Development Alternatives, a consulting group that helps implements USAID development projects in Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which officials said was a response to the recent surge of U.S. troops.

“Even the perception of being tied to the military can have tragic results,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at Center for American Progress and a former State Department official.

Development aid has been tied to counterinsurgency since the war strategy was implemented in Iraq during the Bush administration, but only recently have nonprofits started to collectively push back. The Obama administration has ratcheted up aid efforts in Afghanistan, where the need for infrastructure and humanitarian aid far exceeds that in Iraq.

Safety concerns are paramount in Afghanistan, where insurgents are killing civilians at a rate three times higher than they did during the Iraq war, according to a paper released in July by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The Taliban’s murder of 10 members of Christian organization International Assistance Mission on Aug. 5 has escalated fears among aid workers.

“It’s not a good situation,” said Beth Cole, director of intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Institution of Peace. “The Taliban are circling Kabul. The days are waning.”

Since the start of 2010, there have been 76 attacks on nongovernment workers in Afghanistan, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, an independent group that provides security information for humanitarian workers in the country. Fifteen of those incidents, which include violent attacks and abduction, occurred in July.

Several nongovernment organizations working in Afghanistan have stopped applying for USAID funding and are instead seeking more funding from private donors and the EU, aid workers reported. Still, many organizations say they cannot regain the trust they worked to earn in Afghan communities since long before the 2001 U.S. invasion.

Some argue that aid workers’ blame is misplaced. Because of the increased threat from insurgent groups, development organizations have to learn to work closer with the military, said Richard Owens, director for community stabilization at International Relief and Development.

“You cannot rely on your good relationship with the local communicates to keep you safe anymore,” said Owens, who has a background in coordinating military-civilian operations. “In a world where the Taliban exists, all bets are off.”

Nonprofits are “naive” to think association with the military puts them at greater risk, said Andrew Natsios, a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University and USAID administrator from 2001 to 2006. The Taliban target aid organizations because they are bringing development to Afghanistan, Natsios said.

“Whatever is not 12th century in their world view is regarded as the enemy,” Natsios said. “What the Taliban is fighting against is modernization.”

According to media reports, the Taliban killed the Christian aid workers earlier this month because they were “spying” for the U.S. and “preaching Christianity.” The international group included Afghan nationals and had worked in the country for more than 30 years.

A senior adviser at one high-profile aid organization working in Afghanistan said his organization had been doing development work in Taliban-controlled areas because aid workers spent years proving to insurgents that they did not have a political mission. The organization is rethinking where they can send workers and type of projects they can do under increased security threats.

Development efforts have shifted to areas in Afghanistan where U.S. military forces are concentrated. Health programs in other areas of the country have been shut down, replaced by new projects in the south and east, where fighting is the heaviest, said Leonard Rubenstein, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins and former U.S. Institute of Peace fellow.

The inequitable distribution of aid runs contrary to nonprofit development practices that stress equitable resources across ethnic groups and has created animosity among some communities “who feel they are being penalized for being peaceful,” according to research by Andrew Wilder, an expert on governance and aid in Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Some nongovernment organizations fear communities that have lost development projects may lash out at aid workers, creating new conflict in previously stable areas.

“It’s actually counterproductive,” Rubenstein said. “You’re really shooting yourself in the foot.”