KABUL: The International Committee of the Red Cross is one of the very few international organisations whose work and neutrality in Afghanistan has been praised by the Taliban, so the May 29 suicide attack on the group's office in the east of the country has raised fears the conflict could be shifting into a bloodier and more chaotic stage.

The ICRC has worked in Afghanistan for almost three decades, and has prided itself on neutrality that, together with widespread respect for its work, has formed the basis of its sense of security.

Even the Taliban, not known for their public appreciation of international organisations, last summer paid tribute to “valuable services” the ICRC provides. These range from immunisation of children and fitting landmine victims with prosthetic limbs to tracing insurgent and other prisoners in jails and reconnecting them with their families.

“It is an impartial organisation and works throughout the world for the needy, helpless and oppressed people,” the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan - the Taliban's name for themselves - said in an statement that also appealed for more help protecting their prisoners.

There are many aid groups that eschew guns, armoured cars and the other trappings of foreign security in favour of strong relationships with the people they serve, but the ICRC is probably the largest and best known.

That should have made it the most secure. So when a suicide bomber detonated at the gate of the ICRC compound in Jalalabad city, and two other gunmen rushed inside seeking targets, the attack sent shockwaves that are still being felt long after the shootout ended.

“No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. Nevertheless, the insurgency has crossed a red line,” said Kate Clark, of the Afghanistan Analyst Network, in an article about the assault.

“It is not just that the ICRC enjoys special protection under the Geneva conventions. In Afghanistan, the organisation has earned itself a reputation for neutrality and dedication through successive stages of the decades-long war. Its worth is acknowledged by all, including the Taliban.”

There have been attacks before on travelling ICRC employees, and some from its partner organisation the Afghan Red Crescent. But Wednesday's assault was the first time its clearly marked compounds have been targeted, and the ICRC has no idea who was behind it.

“Its definitely a game-changer, as it brings into question the way we have been trying to work with different groups, getting guarantees for our safety,” said Robin Waudo, spokesman for the ICRC in Afghanistan. “Its a very very dangerous precedent. We are still trying to evaluate the situation and we will have to sit down and ponder what we can do next. The way forward is very unclear.”

There was surprisingly little bloodshed for such an assault on an organisation that use armed personnel. There were three casualties, a guard who was killed immediately by the suicide bomb, and two lightly injured, the foreign head of the office and the Afghan head of transport.

Unusually two of the assailants gave up their standoff with security forces and slunk away into the night. The majority of insurgent gunmen in Afghanistan tend to fight to the death.

The Taliban spokesman could not be reached on Wednesday or Thursday, but analysts and aid workers said the attack was deeply troubling regardless of who was behind it.

If the Taliban does come out and distance themselves from the attack, this would point to further fragmentation of armed groups in Afghanistan that makes it harder for aid workers to secure guarantees of safety for their staff. But if they do claim responsibility, this would suggest their commanders are willing to put the publicity and other impacts from the attack above the work of an organisations that benefits injured or imprisoned Taliban fighters as much as ordinary Afghans.

“Up to now, one would have said it was in [the Taliban's] interests to have the ICRC working safely in their country,” Clark said. “But if this was a Taliban attack - ordered from the top or by a rogue or outside group - it is even more serious and one would have to expect even bloodier times ahead.”

By arrangement with the Guardian

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