Mercy Corps and other aid organizations, facing attacks and threats from resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida forces, are retreating from areas of Afghanistan where some have worked for 16 years.
As an escalating guerrilla war threatens President Hamid Karzai's U.S.-backed government, Mercy Corps managers say Taliban and al-Qaida forces are targeting Western aid workers.
"They've extended this conflict that they have with the coalition and with the Karzai government to include international organizations, which is a new and disturbing twist," said Jim White, Mercy Corps' South Asia regional director, during a Wednesday interview in Portland. "We're having to substantially downsize."
The retreat by aid organizations exposes Afghanistan to a vicious cycle as the Taliban, warlords and al-Qaida move into the void, turning more Afghans against the Karzai government, the United States and the United Nations.
Mercy Corps has pulled workers back to Kabul from rural areas, where they had been supporting villagers rebuilding wells, schools and houses. The organization, which had 23 non-Afghan workers in Kandahar last summer, is down to five. Its Afghan work force has dropped from 500 to about 150 in southern Afghanistan.
"For the first time in 16 years, we're having to pull back substantially from an area that we've worked in through five successive governments," White said, "including the Taliban, the mujahedeen and the Soviets."
Mercy Corps and other relief organizations urge the Bush administration to support expanding the international security force, a 4,500-strong unit whose patrols remain confined to Kabul.
[Editor's Note: This article was excerpted from a story originally titled “Threatened Aid Groups Retreat in Afghanistan” by Richard Read, The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), April 17, 2003.]