Soldiers from the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) may be leaving Afghanistan in the coming two years, but humanitarian needs are not going to disappear any time soon and neither will the Taliban.
The coming power shift is likely to add to a trend that is already a reality for aid workers - more frequent dealings with the Taliban.
A report published today by the Overseas Development Institute highlights the challenges for aid workers needing to engage with Taliban fighters, members of an organization classed as a terrorist group by several Western countries.
“Aid agencies’ access to negotiations with the Taliban will be critical after 2014. Establishing effective engagement policies is fundamental to reaching all Afghans in need,” said Ashley Jackson, co-author of the report.
From the Biafran war in Nigeria in the late 1960s to the challenges faced in northern Mali, Somalia and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, humanitarian agencies have long faced the challenge of reaching those in greatest need in areas often far from government-controlled capitals.
In Afghanistan, the least developed country in Asia, aid agencies are often reluctant to talk about these issues, but, as this new report makes clear, aid can be and is being delivered in areas where the Taliban are present.
“The greatest guarantee of security for aid workers and those they seek to help is structured engagement with the Taliban,” says the report.
Yet some aid workers fear they will fall foul of counter-terrorism laws if they negotiate with the Taliban for access to aid supplies and projects.
Beyond these concerns, many agencies do manage to carry out aid projects in such areas, and this report discusses the issues they face: attacks on personnel, restrictions on the types of projects that are possible, and the use of Afghan staff managed remotely from Kabul.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is one of the NGOs working in areas where the Taliban and other anti-government groups have increasing influence, particularly in the northwestern and southeastern regions.
“NRC relies heavily on the humanitarian principles as `tools’ for ensuring acceptance and access in all the areas that we work - including in areas of contested control, or where Taliban have a presence,” NRC’s protection and advocacy adviser in Afghanistan, Daniel Tyler, told IRIN.
He says they try to get the message across to local community leaders that they provide aid to those in need regardless of political, ideological or other objectives.
“Acceptance by communities can at times translate into acceptance by anti-government groups and, ultimately, this is what NRC relies on to deliver aid.”
The fall of the Taliban in 2001 led to several years of open and easy access for humanitarian agencies working throughout the country.
But the Taliban insurgency from 2004 onwards started to close the “humanitarian space” - international staff facing security concerns withdrew from the field to leave more responsibility in the hands of Afghan aid workers.
The ODI report’s authors say Afghan staff, often from the communities they are working in, are frequently left with little guidance from managers on how to engage with Taliban commanders, exposing them to considerable risks.
Taliban view of aid
At the top, Taliban leaders appear open to aid missions, except where such work is seen as linked to the international military operation, strongly sponsored by nations contributing troops to the anti-Taliban campaign, or seen to counter the Taliban view of Afghan traditional values.
On the ground though, aid agencies face a lack of consistent attitudes from local commanders, as well as the threat of other armed groups - splinter organizations and criminal gangs.
“This is one of the hardest things to deal with in this environment. We are not dealing with a single amorphous body. The problem you have is that there is a lot of fragmentation - some are operating quite autonomously,” International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman in Afghanistan Robin Waudo told IRIN.
ICRC holds confidential discussions with commanders on all sides to negotiate access, but still faces considerable restrictions in its movements, particularly around Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south.
“It’s very easy to reach out to the Afghan authorities and the international force but it’s much harder to make contact with those fighting on the other side and the groups operating in the shadows - but we work hard to reach out to everyone,” he said.
Fragmentation… on both sides
The Taliban also find themselves up against a mix of humanitarian and development actors - NGOs, UN agencies, private contractors, and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) that are closely tied to Western military operations.
Many humanitarian agencies try to convince local armed groups of their neutrality, while facing accusations from Taliban officials that they support the government, are spies, or that they undermine cultural values, particularly traditional views on women.
The model of an integrated UN mission can also pose challenges of perception. In Afghanistan, UN agencies try to deliver neutral humanitarian aid - sometimes in contact with Taliban groups - while the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan supports the government and coordinates with ISAF.
Security problems and funding sources have meant humanitarian and development aid has frequently been implemented in areas where the international force has been most active.
Aid agencies report that Taliban military commanders frequently close down aid operations in areas that see lots of Western military activity.
A joint statement issued by the humanitarian community in Afghanistan last month said humanitarian interventions were frequently associated with political or military objectives.
“Over the last decade, Afghanistan witnessed a gradual erosion of humanitarian principles owing to the politicized funding environment,” said the statement by the Humanitarian Country Team, which said humanitarian NGOs should remain independent and impartial.
Life after the international troops leave
While the withdrawal of international forces could create more space for humanitarian agencies to assert their independence, it is also likely to bring instability and create more situations where agencies will have to negotiate directly or indirectly with the Taliban.
Daniel Tyler at NRC says “work to ensure that all local power-holders and parties to the conflict accept and respect humanitarian principles to allow access to people in need needs to start now.”
The report’s authors recommend NGOs spend more time coordinating their engagement with groups like the Taliban, providing adequate support to Afghan staff when seeking to remotely manage operations, and being clear about their neutrality.