Talking to the Taliban, again

Slowly but surely, NGOs and UN bodies are admitting it publicly - they are dealing with the Taliban again. While such deals have been developing in private for several years, NGOs have been hesitant to discuss their relations with the Afghan Islamist group because of political pressure and counter terrorism legislation.

Yet as foreign military forces prepare to complete their withdrawal from combat operations at the end of the year and as it becomes increasingly clear that large swathes of territory will remain under Taliban control, aid organizations have felt both compelled and empowered to talk to them. Mark Bowden, the UN Secretary-General's deputy special representative for Afghanistan and the humanitarian coordinator for the country, told IRIN that in the past year negotiations with the Taliban have advanced significantly.

For many in the aid industry this shift is indicative of a newfound willingness to stand up to Western governments. It represents the empowering of an aid sector that for much of the past 13 years found itself acting as the civilian wing of a foreign occupation, a role that carried grave and far-reaching consequences.

It is a story of how humanitarian principles were eroded by political expediency under pressure, and of the battle to get them back.

Roots taking hold

The story begins in the late 1990s. Contrary to common perception, the Taliban in its early years was not wholly hostile to foreign aid organizations, as Luca Radaelli, medical coordinator of a Kabul hospital, can testify. "The Taliban gave us this," he said, pointing to the medical facility.

By the late 90s the Islamists had taken over up to 90 percent of Afghanistan after a vicious civil war. With violence ongoing, thousands were being injured as attacks continued but medical care and support for the people were thin on the ground. Emergency, an Italian NGO, tentatively approached the Taliban about bringing medical support for the beleaguered population.

After extensive discussions about the nature of humanitarian aid the Taliban offered Emergency a largely barren area to do their work. The area is now home to Kabul's top free hospital for war victims.

Provided the organization acted impartially, Radaelli said, the Taliban allowed much-needed humanitarian action - even when it appeared to go against their conservative beliefs. "At that time 40 percent of our [Afghan] employees were women," he said.

David Haines, country director of Mercy Corps, agrees that by the late 1990s, trust was beginning to be built between those organizations working on the ground and the Taliban leadership. Part of this, he said, was a realization by the Taliban that they needed aid.

"Initially they said `we don't need any NGOs' and were very suspicious about foreigners being in the country. But then when they realized they were getting hammered for not providing public services they started to realize that foreign NGOs can provide health and education," he said.

"The foreign militaries wanted aid workers to ride on the tanks and leap off the roof and start working."

Attempts to corral international NGOs into particular areas of Kabul did cause tension and there were occasional security issues, Haines said, but "for the bulk of the time it was a relatively straight-forward relationship."

A blurry bonanza

It was not to last long. Emergency's hospital opened in mid-2001. The 11 September Al Qaeda attacks in the US only a few months later changed everything, leading rapidly to a US-led military coalition invading Afghanistan in 'Operation Enduring Freedom.'

After a few weeks of chaos, all was calm for several years. The coalition's overwhelming strength succeeded in pushing the Taliban from power across the country. Their leadership was either dead or hidden in the Pakistani mountains. They seemed to be defeated.

Franck Abeille, country director at the French charity Action Against Hunger (ACF), explained that briefly NGOs almost forgot about the Taliban. "In 2001 on the ground there was only one group [the foreign forces] - those that were in power [the Taliban] left," he said. There seemed little reason to talk to the Taliban about access - NGO workers could work freely in all but tiny pockets of the country.

At the same time, lines were being blurred and crossed. The US administration of George W. Bush saw NGOs as part of the war effort, a "force multiplier," and, together with its coalition partners, was more than happy to bankroll the activities of an aid sector that burgeoned as a result of this largesse.

The "US-led coalition's systematic attempts to co-opt humanitarian aid and use it to win 'hearts and minds . had seriously compromised humanitarian aid workers image of neutrality and impartiality," according to Medecins sans Frontieres.

A key pillar of this co-opting strategy was the provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs). Originally formed in 2002 under NATO, the PRTs were military-led bodies to plan the development of various regions. By 2008 there were 26 of them covering the vast majority of Afghanistan.

Aid workers should, in theory, have objected immediately to this blurring of humanitarianism and military actors. There were certainly grumblings: as early as 2004, a Save the Children report warned that the PRTs "complicate the interface between humanitarian and military actors".

Yet there was little concerted effort by aid agencies to resist, and many even acquiesced. Some international and Afghan agencies accepted funding directly from the PRTs to implement projects, while others took cash from the same nations leading the PRTs - often carrying out projects in the districts where PRTs were operating.

Finance inevitably played a large role, with the huge sums offered by the foreign governments proving tempting. As Haines said: "Wittingly or unwittingly a lot of [international] NGOs were drawn into it. They were offered a lot of money. From their perspective they were thinking `great, we can do so much good. Instead of one or two provinces we can do 20, with a budget of $200 million a year.' So the temptation was huge but ultimately all of those programmes were designed with the single purpose of winning hearts and minds."

In practice, their efforts sometimes had the opposite effect. By allying themselves with the same warlords that had long terrorized communities and failing to push through real reform on issues like corruption, the foreign forces were beginning to lose what good will they had.

At the same time, changes in UN policy were contributing to an increasingly negative perception of aid workers. Under a new push to better coordinate between its humanitarian, political and peacekeeping work in any given country, the UN introduced the concept of "integrated missions", in which all three streams would report to the same management structure. This meant that humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan - meant to be neutral in the conflict - now fell under the leadership of the UN political mission mandated to support the government, one party to the conflict. In 2003 the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) office was closed, with the political mission UNAMA taking on its responsibilities.

Ashley Jackson, co-author of a Humanitarian Policy Group report on the politicization of aid in Afghanistan, said the cumulative result of these trends was aid workers came to be seen as active participants in the occupation of Afghanistan. "The presence of PRTs and for-profit contractors so profoundly blurred the lines, to the point where it was difficult for the average Taliban fighter to distinguish between who was neutral and who was not."

Stepping back

For the Taliban these aid organizations were therefore fair game. By 2004, the militants had regrouped. With foreign forces distracted by also fighting in Iraq, they had begun a successful insurgency campaign. In 2006 the group released its first code of conduct on acceptable measures in war, directly threatening aid workers.

"Those NGOs that come to the country under the rule of the infidels must be treated as the government is treated. They have come under the guise of helping people but in fact are part of the regime. Thus we tolerate none of their activities, whether it be building of streets, bridges, clinics, schools, madrasas [schools for Koran study] or other works," it said.

This was perhaps not as blanket a ban as it initially appeared. Thomas Ruttig, senior analyst at the Afghanistan Analysts Network, pointed out that even then the Taliban might have drawn a distinction in their wording between "those that came with [the foreign troops] and those who were already there who were sometimes allowed [to continue their work]."

Yet it fitted a wider trend of large numbers of NGO workers being kidnapped or killed, often deliberately targeted. And while in principle the Taliban drew a distinction for organizations that predated 2001, in reality the attacks seemed to tar all foreign aid workers with the same brush - in 2004 five staff from MSF, generally accepted as one of the most fiercely independent aid organizations with over 20 years experience in the country, were killed.

For the NGOs, the penny started to drop that they had allowed themselves to become targets. But it would be a few years, Haines said, before policies seriously started to be reassessed.

A large factor in eventually forcing the shift was the so-called troop surge. In early 2010 the US committed over 30,000 new troops to the country with the aim of crushing the Taliban ahead of an eventual withdrawal. This coincided with the wider implementation of the US military strategy known as COIN, for Counterinsurgency. There were three parts to taking over new territory - capture, hold, build. The third part was where the aid workers came in.

"Increasingly from 2009 onwards, USAID [US Agency for International Development] particularly would instruct its implementing partners to go into new areas that they had never worked in literally days after 'clear' had taken place and whilst 'hold' was still in process," Haines said.

Information gathered by humanitarian actors was sometimes even fed back to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), legitimizing the Taliban's fears that NGOs were spying. Perhaps never before had the line between military actors and charities been so blurred. As Heather Barr, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Asia, put it, the foreign militaries "wanted aid workers to ride on the tanks and leap off the roof and start working."

New channels

Gradually the NGOs realized they had gone too far and they needed to negotiate.

On the other side they saw an increasingly nuanced and less explicitly hostile opposition, as the Taliban sought to present itself as a legitimate government-in-waiting. In 2009 and 2010 the group again released codes of conduct about the rules of war. Gone was the overt hostility to all foreign NGOs, replaced with more nuanced critiques.

So quietly, without much fanfare, new channels were opened. Long-neglected relationships were rekindled. NGOs that had not spoken to the Taliban for years started to seek access agreements.

At the time, it was too politically awkward for Western NGOs to be seen talking to the Taliban. The official line was clear - the Taliban would be crushed; Western governments told their people. No negotiations were necessary.

While this failed to reflect the reality on the ground as the Taliban continued to grow in many areas, it was backed up by increasingly oppressive anti-terrorism legislation, which often prevented aid agencies from having formal negotiations with the Taliban. As such from 2010, NGOs were often loath to admit to their formal negotiations.

Jackson, who carried out extensive research on NGO relationships with the Taliban over three years, said this led to a duplicitous approach of senior managers denying relationships with the Taliban to board members but knowing that on the ground their staff were doing so.

This "don't ask, don't tell" environment, she said, actually put the responsibility on those field workers with the least experience - often putting them at unnecessarily high risk. "The NGOs were afraid of what their headquarters were going to think and they were afraid of counter-terrorism legislation," she said.

Back to independence

In the past 18 months international NGOs have started to admit to their negotiations on humanitarian access with the Taliban. Part of this is a wider political realization that the Taliban will not be beaten militarily, which makes such deals more acceptable for Western governments - all political sides now accept the inevitability of negotiated settlement.

But the largest factor has been the withdrawal of foreign troops. By the end of this year foreigners will no longer play a combat role in Afghanistan's war. For aid organizations, it is an opportunity to show their commitment to the country is not tied to military objectives.

"The more the military pull out the more there is an opportunity for humanitarian actors to distinguish themselves," John Butt, access focal point at the Norwegian Refugee Council, said. "Humanitarians have an opportunity to stand up and be counted as humanitarians."

Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Bowden pointed to the decision to stop deploying the PRTs in late 2012 as another crucial moment in sharpening the lines between the military and humanitarians. "The biggest factor was not just the troop withdrawal but actually the closure of the PRTs - they were the most confusing element of this. We have now had almost two years without the PRTs, so it is a different operational environment."

He said that in the past year negotiations on humanitarian access with the Taliban had advanced and that he was confident of moving towards impartiality. "We give humanitarian assistance in accordance with humanitarian principles - which means it goes on the basis of need to areas across the country. That is not challenged by the government or by the Taliban," he said.

"Here there are now clearer lines of communication than there were before. We have certainly shared the CHAP [Common Humanitarian Action Plan] with the Taliban. They are fully aware of the strategy as we have shared the CHAP with the government on an equal basis."

Thirteen years after the invasion of Afghanistan, it appears that humanitarian organizations are finally opening up to the Taliban. Trust is still developing and the number of organizations that can operate easily in Taliban areas remains relatively few, but at least aid agencies are taking on the challenge. This could help, Ruttig said, foster a wider political understanding.

"There are a lot of humanitarian and development actors who are forced to work with the Taliban in the areas where they work," he said. "This can be good because it is also an interaction, which might contribute to change and improve mutual understanding."

Aid workers and analysts agree that Afghanistan provides lessons for humanitarians in other conflict zones - particularly ones where the West is an active participant in the battles. Never again should humanitarians allow themselves to become the civilian wing of an invasion. "In Iraq and Syria, aid workers have to make sure they remain neutral and seek access agreements early," Jackson said. "In some ways, this is the lesson of Afghanistan."