Talking to the Taliban

As international troops withdraw from Afghanistan and prepare to hand over security in 2014, HPG’s newly published research based on scores of interviews with the Taliban provides a rare insight into their relationship with aid organisations. The report, ‘Talking to the Other Side’, does much to illuminate what lies ahead for humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan. Central to its findings and recommendations is the assertion that aid organisations’ engagement with the Taliban will be critical to the future of humanitarian and development work in Afghanistan.

It identifies elements of the Taliban Quetta Shura (leadership) who say they are willing to engage with humanitarian organisations and who – on the face of it – appear to offer an open door to negotiators to provide access to Afghans in need of assistance. But a fundamental challenge remains in securing Taliban cooperation at a local level where comments in interviews reveal a more hostile and Manichean view of aid organisations. Typical among them: “Anybody who comes here [for aid work] is our enemy and we consider them to be all the same.”  Such sentiments were notably more prevalent among ideologically motivated Taliban including those from neighbouring Pakistan and Uzbekistan whose presence has increased in Afghanistan in recent years. Such extremist Taliban fighters expressed a position of outright hostility toward aid organisations who they regard as agents acting on behalf of enemy states; proselytising, anti-Islamic spies who – in their eyes – represent legitimate military targets.

In assessing the most effective humanitarian negotiations to provide safe access to aid workers and those they seek to help, the report concludes that these are the ‘structured negotiations’ – in other words, those that are conducted at multiple levels to secure cooperation at national, provincial and local levels.  The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), for example, has long invested in these kinds of negotiations with the Taliban – as it does with all parties to the conflict.  However, these do not amount to a guarantee for safety and can result in precarious access – indeed, the ICRC had to withdraw from some areas of the country following targeted attacks on its delegates in 2004.

Following the fall of the Taliban in 2001 humanitarian and development organisations had virtually free rein across Afghanistan but this was greatly curtailed following the resurgence of the Taliban. As international aid agencies withdrew to more remote operations, Afghan aid workers took on the brunt of responsibility for gaining access to people in need.  Despite reluctance on the part of aid agencies to speak openly about negotiations research found that aid agencies frequently tend to favour an approach that avoids direct engagement with the Taliban by operating a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. This places greater onus on local Afghan staff or community members to take responsibility for securing access to Taliban areas.  It is informative to note here that the past year has seen a peak in the number of aid workers who became victims of killings, kidnappings and attacks which resulted in serious injury – and that Afghanistan remains the country with by far the most incidents.

Interviews with scores of aid workers also sheds light on the moral complexities confronting local workers in comments such as “If I say it’s not safe or that sometimes we have to pay at checkpoints, will I lose my job? I have promised the people support, will they be abandoned?”

‘Talking to the Other Side’ also identifies an absence of clarity surrounding what constitutes permissible engagement by donor governments which generates concerns among aid workers that they could fall foul of counter-terrorism legislation amid confusion about the legality of humanitarian negotiations with armed groups.

As well as identifying the challenges that such complex terrain presents to the future of humanitarian and development assistance in Afghanistan, the report provides a range of recommendations for aid agencies and donor governments.  All these are underpinned by the logic of the report’s principal assertion: namely that the greatest guarantee for aid workers and those they seek to help lies with structured humanitarian negotiations with the Taliban.  For many it will be an inconvenient and unpalatable truth - but talking to the Taliban will likely become increasingly critical to the future of humanitarian and development work in Afghanistan – and for those Afghans they seek to help.

12 December 2012
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This publication is an output of the following project: Humanitarian negotiations with armed non-state actors