Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
International Committee of the Red Cross vehicles in Janda, Afghanistan. The aid group has a 151-year history of treating all war wounded regardless of their background or affiliation.
International Committee of the Red Cross vehicles in Janda, Afghanistan. The aid group has a 151-year history of treating all war wounded regardless of their background or affiliation. Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
The International Committee of the Red Cross rejected criticism Wednesday of its role in providing first-aid training to Taliban militants, after word of the practice drew angry e-mails from around the world.
The Red Cross said it has been giving first-aid training and kits to Taliban militants, as well as Afghan police and security forces, for almost four years. Last month, the ICRC trained more than 70 Taliban fighters and over 100 Afghan forces.
"It's the core of the ICRC's mandate to make sure that people are cured whether they are from one side or the other side," said Christian Cardon, a Red Cross spokesman in Geneva.
He said the ICRC is able to work with the two sides in a conflict because of its neutral position and because it's transparent about its activities.
The Red Cross runs similar first-aid training courses in other conflict-ridden countries. First-aid courses have been held in Gaza with members of Hamas and other Palestinian groups, Cardon said.
On Tuesday, Britain's Guardian newspaper quoted an unidentified official in Kandahar's local government as criticizing the first-aid training, saying the Taliban did "not deserve to be treated like humans."
Cardon said the Red Cross received angry e-mails from people around the world in response to the article. But he insisted that in Afghanistan most officials well understood and accepted the group's 151-year history of treating all war wounded regardless of their background or affiliation.
Cardon cited the Red Cross orthopedic hospital in Kabul where amputees are fitted with artificial limbs.
"We never ask the people who come about their background," he said. "This is the way we work everywhere in Afghanistan and all over the world."
Cardon said a recent statement from NATO strongly supports the role the ICRC is playing in Afghanistan and stresses the impartiality with which the agency operates in such a difficult environment.
As for training Taliban fighters and providing them with first-aid kits, Cardon said journeys to Afghanistan's few functioning hospitals were often arduous or nearly impossible, meaning even basic first aid could help save lives when medical help isn't available.
He added that the three-day courses were an opportunity to show participants the need to abide by the Geneva Conventions that govern the conduct of war.
The conventions also are the reason that U.S. military medical helicopters rescue insurgents as well as U.S. and NATO soldiers when they are called to battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan to pick up the wounded and rush them to field hospitals.
Andrea Bianchi, a professor of international law at Geneva's Graduate Institute, said the Red Cross wasn't obliged to provide training and medical kits to the Taliban but appeared to have chosen to do so for practical reasons.
"Afghanistan is a very difficult place to operate," he said. "The idea that the ICRC might offer first aid kits doesn't shock me, honestly."
"They stick to this idea that they are impartial and neutral, which means they must provide aid in whatever form is needed to improve the condition of the injured," Bianchi said. "Neutrality means you cannot take sides even in a situation in which it is clear who the bad guys are and who's on the right side."
Cardon said the criticism recalled the period after Sept. 11, 2001, when the group was inundated with angry messages because it visited prisoners held at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
If Afghan officials were to complain to the Red Cross about the first aid training for Taliban fighters "we will go and meet them to clarify that it's the way we have always worked and always will work," he said.