An Afghan girl watches a coalition aircraft during a “village clearing operation” in northern Khakrez District, Kandahar province, Afghanistan. An Afghan girl watches a coalition aircraft during a “village clearing operation” in northern Khakrez District, Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Photo credit: Sgt. Daniel P. Shook /DVIDS
Negotiating humanitarian access in southern Afghanistan: communication, complexity and coordination
by Will Carter May 2014

After three decades of bitter conflict, humanitarian operations in Afghanistan remain fraught with difficulties and risks. In the early days of the conflict, humanitarian organisations worked in Kandahar and elsewhere in the south with much freedom of movement. However, the death of an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) water engineer travelling between Kandahar and Uruzgan in March 2003 signalled a sea change in operational security and humanitarian access in the south, and perhaps Afghanistan as a whole. Conflict intensified over the decade that followed, and security incidents affecting NGOs (mostly at the hands of the armed opposition) increased commensurately. By late 2009 the majority of organisations had closed their offices in southern Afghanistan or had decided to ‘remote manage’ a much-reduced portfolio of aid programming. Even so, a humanitarian presence persisted, partly due to bilateral engagement between NGOs and the armed opposition.

This paper examines humanitarian access arrangements in southern Afghanistan. It looks at how communications underpinning the negotiations actually worked; complexities and challenges to negotiating access there; and opportunities for inter-agency coordination and collaboration. The analysis is based on field observations during the author’s posting as a humanitarian security adviser in Kandahar, as well as interviews with ten practitioners representing the main humanitarian organisations in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan.


In some ways making contact with the armed opposition in southern Afghanistan was much more difficult than negotiating with them; actual communications were problematic. Based on this research, the following five means of communication were identified:

  1. Community engagement: gaining acceptance (or at least tolerance) for NGO programming within a community, and therefore indirectly with local opposition commanders.
  2. Structured networking: selectively engaging with key local leaders (e.g. religious leaders), who may act as intermediaries with the armed opposition.
  3. Local negotiations: directly negotiating access with local opposition commanders.
  4. Senior-level negotiations: directly negotiating access with senior opposition leaders.
  5. Collaborative negotiations: multilateral (i.e. inter-agency) access negotiations with the armed opposition.

The majority of NGOs worked through community acceptance practices, and a minority also negotiated access bilaterally at local or senior levels, but no NGO worked collaboratively with others on these issues. Direct negotiations, especially at the local level, appeared to be the most difficult form of communication, but were also the most effective medium to gain credible security assurances. However, such face-to-face meetings were difficult. Of the two NGOs which liaised directly with local opposition commanders, one had premises which could serve as a neutral meeting location, whilst the other visited opposition commanders at places of their choosing. In the latter of those two modes there were significant risks of death or abduction, particularly as an expatriate would be leading negotiations in a relatively vulnerable setup. However, such demonstrated vulnerabilities, the NGO believed, were critical for trust-building between the NGO and the armed opposition groups, and paid dividends in the latter stages of negotiation.

The substance of talks also deserves attention. Generally speaking, derived from case studies obtained in the research, the objectives of these local-level access negotiations included written undertakings from opposition commanders covering access, staff safety, ‘taxation’ and the independence of NGO programming and resources from opposition plans. For their part, opposition groups required transparency and confidence in NGO programming in their areas, as well as minor gains for themselves. Further compromises could often be reached by hiring particular relatives for project work or in support positions, or by extending programming to other specified villages or communities. Negotiations often took place over two or three dedicated meetings, though thereafter meetings were kept to an absolute minimum for security reasons. The process was often repeated, partly because opposition commanders were often replaced. Prior to each summer ‘fighting season’ ‘shadow’ Provincial Governors would often introduce new local commanders, with whom agencies would negotiate new access memoranda. These temporal and personality-driven aspects of communications complicated and nuanced access negotiations as they frequently changed, necessitating regular reviews of humanitarian access strategies.


The case study above suggests that rational, interest-based access negotiations with the armed opposition are possible, and testimonies highlight their lifesaving utility (for both practitioners and beneficiaries). However, a number of complexities became apparent from the research, namely: balancing principles and pragmatism; knowing who to talk to, and how stakeholders change over time; testing the credibility of security assurances; and resourcing effective and sustained negotiations.

Firstly, an obvious tension is apparent in whether access negotiations can realistically be fully principled, particularly in terms of perceived neutrality. One participant explained that ‘you can’t simply say that you’re here for the population … local powerbrokers always ask “what’s in it for me?” … But if you pander to [their] interests you might effectively be buying your access, and this is dangerous’. Another participant highlighted that local commanders would have to be engaged on interests other than humanitarian imperatives, and that these would change over time. Careful planning is required, outlining what can or cannot be compromised and why – balancing both principles and pragmatism.+E. Thompson, Principled Pragmatism: NGO Engagement with Armed Actors, World Vision International, 2008, One way to take this ethical dilemma by the horns is to think of humanitarian principles in ordinal terms, in which the principle of humanity (i.e. responding only to human suffering) is the highest principle, and the humanitarian principle of neutrality as subordinate. Usually, however, an organisation does not compromise its neutrality, particularly in terms of decisionmaking. Rather, external perceptions of the NGO’s neutrality or bias are more variable, although these can affect access and operational security just as much.

Secondly, negotiated security assurances were perceived as insufficient, even when they were credibly offered, because many fatal incidents are simply indiscriminate, the operational control of senior opposition commanders over the lowest echelons was dubious and there was a kaleidoscope of different opposition cells, and boundaries between their areas of operation were dynamic. In one incident in 2007, an NGO gained security assurances from credible opposition authorities to undertake a field movement between Kandahar and Helmand, but the convoy was still fired upon. As such, negotiating access may mitigate certain security risks, but cannot eliminate them completely.

Thirdly, there were structural difficulties in maintaining contact with the armed opposition, and it was difficult for humanitarians to know who they were negotiating with (‘there is no organogram [for the armed opposition]’), if they were credible and if they had authority and control. Moreover, the international military ‘targeting’ strategy meant that the turnover of opposition commanders was high.+A. Jackson and A. Giustozzi, Talking to the Other Side: Humanitarian Engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, HPG Working Paper, 2012, One NGO staff member commented that, a few months after local elders had concluded lengthy negotiations for written permission from one commander for NGO projects to be implemented in their community, that commander was replaced with another with whom a new agreement was required, and the process had to be laboriously repeated.+N. Pont, ‘Southern Afghanistan: Acceptance Still Works’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 49, February 2011, However, another NGO maintained that trust-building at a high level in the armed opposition allowed routine introductions to new command appointments as and when they came about.

Fourthly, sustained and effective access negotiations were difficult to resource, with estimates of community outreach and negotiation activities ranging from 5% to 15% of programme budgets, rising to 30% when related activities, such as communications (e.g. media, policy, advocacy), were included. Negotiated humanitarian access typically required at least one expatriate staff member working exclusively on it, and a network of credible, local ‘community outreach officers’ to facilitate engagement and conduct preliminary negotiations. Negotiations moved slowly because of the time required to build mutual trust, and were an ongoing process.


No organisations engaged in multilateral/inter-agency access negotiations akin to Operation Lifeline Sudan, the Special Relief Programme for Angola or the Southern and Northern Operations in Ethiopia. Initiatives to track access and engage in negotiations in Afghanistan (including efforts by an NGO coordination body and later a UN-led Access Working Group) have not been very successful. One option may be to aim first at smaller, localised humanitarian access agreements, as opposed to attempting nationallevel negotiations.+L. Chounet-Cambas, ‘Negotiating Ceasefires’, in Managing Peace Processes: A Handbook for AU Practitioners, Vol. II, Humanitarian Dialogue Centre, 2013, Whilst a consortium approach to humanitarian engagement could add leverage to access negotiations with the armed opposition and allow organisations to pool resources, NGOs operating in southern Afghanistan that engaged with the armed opposition were wary of collaborative engagement and none of the three organisations that negotiated with senior opposition commanders believed it prudent to expand their arrangements to include other partners. As one participant put it: ‘if one NGO were to make a mistake, we would all pay’. All three organisations were open to facilitating negotiated access on behalf of smaller organisations (and had done so in the past) – but only when they could retain full control of the process.

In summary, negotiating access is clearly possible, of lifesaving utility and an emergent feature in humanitarian security management. It can significantly mitigate the risk of direct attacks, opportunistic violence and collateral damage. It is also complex, difficult to coordinate and highly risky. Nonetheless, this is a key moment to reconsider a coordinated humanitarian strategy regarding access negotiations. Structural transformations in the operating environment in Afghanistan, in the wake of the recent national election and international drawdown, present unprecedented opportunities for effective engagement with interlocutors at local, regional and national levels in order to secure safe access for humanitarian operations. Such coordination has high risks, but also potentially very high rewards for humanitarian access. Unfortunately, such an endeavour requires resourcing, leadership and consensus, and the moment of opportunity will pass quickly. The new social orders and political dynamics in Afghanistan will begin to recrystallise not long after this transitional period ends. The humanitarian community therefore needs to move quickly and deftly to seize the opportunity and lead discussions to re-negotiate access with all stakeholders.

Will Carter is a Postgraduate Researcher at the Durham Global Security Institute, Durham University. He is also a Beirut-based project manager for Integrity, an ethical research consultancy specialised in conflict and fragile environments. Previously he was a Kandahar-based Regional Adviser covering southern Afghanistan for a humanitarian security coordination mechanism, and also a Security Adviser for both War Child UK globally and for Mercy Corps in Syria.