The Red Cross’ facility in the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan came under attack on Wednesday when a suicide bomber and three gunmen attempted to storm the building. After the bomber detonated, part of seen engulfed in flames. One security guard was killed in the ensuing firefight between the insurgents and Afghan security forces, with one other person injured. The attackers were eventually repulsed, with all seven Red Cross staffers rescued.
In response to the attack, the ICRC announced via Twitter that it would be freezing activities in Afghanistan and closing its office in Jalalabad. “All movements have been frozen throughout Afghanistan, there is not a single ICRC delegate or employee that is moving, taking the roads, today,” Jacques De Maio, ICRC’s South Asia chief, said in a statement released in Geneva on Thursday. Red Cross spokesman Phillipe Stoll later clarified via Twitter that only work Jalalabad has been halted indefinitely, with orthopedic facilities reopening tomorrow and other facilities resuming normal operations shortly.
Despite that assurance, Wednesday’s attack and the Red Cross remain particularly surprising as the assault was the first of its kind on the Red Cross since it began operating in Afghanistan in 1987. Officially neutral in the many conflicts since then, the ICRC’s $90 million a year operation — its largest in the world — has never faced the same security threats that others operating in the country have. Even as other global health and development organizations have fled in the face of attack, as Doctors Without Borders was forced to in 2004, the Red Cross has seemed immune.
While being the most obvious suspect, the Taliban has denied being behind the assault in Jalalabad. In protesting their involvement, the Taliban statement pointed to its recent decision to allow a polio vaccination campaign to proceed unimpeded this year. Per a statment issued last month, the Taliban leaders called upon their fighters to give polio workers “all necessary support” required to carry out the inoculations.
The attack further raises concerns about the state of Afghanistan’s security ahead of the U.S. and NATO ending combat operations in the country in 2014, handing over all security operations to the Afghans. The Obama administration has not yet revealed the number of U.S. troops it will seek to leave behind in the country after that date, though the number has been speculated to be as high as 20,000. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rassmussen is in Washington today to meet with President Barack Obama, where Afghanistan is sure to be one of the top topics of conversation.