While the operating space for aid agencies in Afghanistan has diminished as the conflict has intensified and the insurgent presence has expanded, humanitarian engagement with the Taliban remains taboo. In practice, however, many aid agencies working in insecure areas engage with insurgents to gain access to those in need of assistance. Yet little substantive research has been conducted on Taliban attitudes towards aid agencies. In 2012, researchers conducted some 150 interviews with the Taliban, aid agency staff and ordinary Afghans, examining Taliban attitudes and policies towards aid agencies and humanitarian and development work. Field research focused on two provincial case studies, Faryab and Kandahar, to examine these issues in depth.
Taliban structure and hierarchy
The Taliban are formally organised around two main power centres in Pakistan: Quetta, which is the seat of the Political Commission, and Peshawar, the seat of the Military and Finance Commissions. Subordinate to these are the commissions the Taliban have established to deal with policy and strategy, including on aid agency engagement. They have also established a code of conduct for fighters, the Layha.
Within Afghanistan, Provincial Military Commissioners, with subordinate district-level Military Commissioners, supervise Taliban operations and report to regional Military Commissions. Complementing these military functions, Shadow Governors act as the civilian authority at provincial level and aim to reinforce the visibility of the Taliban as a viable alternative to the Afghan government. In theory, military commanders and political figures at regional, provincial and district level should adhere to the dictates of the leadership.
While the political leadership may give the appearance of a viable structure and openness towards aid actors, its ability to ensure that military commanders and fighters on the ground adhere to its instructions is limited. In practice, the Taliban are a movement with a weak centre, federal in character and still struggling to internalise its structure. The degree to which and the manner in which institutions actually function and influence decision-making is variable, although interviews with provincial and district commanders showed some evidence of these structures playing a role at local level. The vagueness and imprecision of official policy accords significant discretion to local commanders in practice, making local negotiations critical.
Taliban policy on aid access
The Taliban leadership has an articulated policy on aid agency access, overseen by the Commission for the Arrangement and Control of Companies and Organisations. According to interviews conducted with the Commissioner, Qari Abas, agencies are required to register with the Taliban at senior leadership level. Registration requires agencies to meet several conditions, including neutrality, respect for Taliban notions of Afghan culture and, in certain circumstances, payment of tax.
The Taliban leadership appears not to discriminate between organisations, whether UN or NGO, Afghan or international: a list of 26 registered organisations provided to researchers by Abas included UN agencies, national and international NGOs and human rights organisations. Agencies that the Taliban claim are registered rely on funding from a wide range of sources, including both the UN and the US government, and research implied that agencies operating with this funding would be tolerated as long as they followed the Talibans rules. However, many local commanders were suspicious of funding from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troop-contributing countries even where agencies taking such funding were permitted to work. Additionally, the Taliban leadership does not appear to discriminate among activities, albeit some types of work, such as road construction, were objected to when they appeared to go against the Talibans military interests.
In order to register, aid agencies interviewed reported liaising with trusted interlocutors to gain access to the Taliban leadership. Negotiations were reported as occurring in Pakistan or Dubai, as well as in Afghanistan. Once registered, agencies are advised to communicate with provincial-level or local commanders in their areas of operation. Local Taliban are then expected to monitor the activities of aid agencies and their adherence to the rules.
The rough outlines of this policy were fairly well understood by provincial Taliban leaders in both case study locations, Faryab and Kandahar. Registration at the senior level was critical; while some commanders were willing to strike local deals with unregistered agencies, these were more precarious and vulnerable to disruption by rival or more senior commanders. Local fighters were capable of monitoring agency adherence and enforcing rules, reporting that they observed projects through informants within aid agencies. Projects were monitored for efficiency but also to ensure that aid workers were not spying. When rules are broken, the consequences are severe, ranging from warnings to the temporary closure of projects and attacks on aid workers. The leadership was eager to stress that violence is not indiscriminate, but local commanders are authorised to expel, attack and harass aid agencies.
Taliban perceptions of aid agencies
In general, the Taliban had difficulty distinguishing between different actors, particularly at the local level (NGOs, UN agencies, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), for-profit contractors, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and so on). In some instances attitudes towards NGOs, and specifically Afghan NGOs, were more positive than towards the UN. Where commanders could distinguish between the various components of the UN, UNAMA was viewed less favourably than other agencies. UNAMAs support to the Afghan government is explicitly described by some Taliban as compromising the position of all UN agencies, particularly in Kandahar, probably due to the heavier aid agency and UN presence as compared to Faryab.
There was often a high degree of hostility towards aid actors. Accusations of spying for foreign governments were repeatedly expressed. Some more radical Taliban felt that, because NGOs cooperate with parties to the conflict, they are legitimate targets. Counterinsurgency tactics seem to have influenced the perceptions of some Taliban, particularly in Kandahar. Many Taliban reported that they were amenable to granting aid agency access until they saw agencies working only in government-controlled areas and only coming into previously insecure areas after they had been cleared confirming their suspicions that agencies were aligned with the government and international forces.
Criticism was not limited to accusations of espionage or taking sides. Most Taliban saw aid distribution as imbalanced and programmes as ineffective and shortterm, echoing comments from many elders interviewed. Beyond ideological rhetoric, they expressed concerns about honesty, with one Faryab commander stating that the work of these agencies was totally disposable, not permanent and they just help you enough to survive. There was also anger at the perceived ineffectiveness of aid, with another commander commenting that huge amounts are spent in Kandahar but we have not seen any project during the last decade that has brought any positive change to our lives. Poor project quality reinforced suspicions that aid agencies had ulterior motives.
There was also a fear that aid agencies would fail to respect Afghan culture and Islamic values, as defined by the Taliban. Western views of womens rights were especially contentious, and were widely seen as a prime example of the morally corrosive implications of Westerndefined development. Both Taliban and aid agency staff reported incidents of the Taliban exerting pressure on aid agencies on work with women, including banning female staff from working in health clinics or in schools. At times, there appeared to be room for negotiation. Some aid workers reported that they were able to overcome initial Taliban opposition to working with women, and many felt that the Taliban would allow at least some engagement with women as long as Afghan culture was seen to be respected (for example, on the condition that female employees only work with Afghan women).
There were also Taliban who held positive views of aid agencies, albeit they were in a minority. Positive associations often directly related to personal experiences. These ranged from one fighters father working for a UN agency to a Taliban commander citing UN agencies and NGOs providing school supplies for his children. Despite widespread suspicion, these comments underscore the importance of high-quality, needs-based programming and transparency. They also suggest that experiences with one aid agency, whether positive or negative, are likely to influence views of aid agencies in general.
While the political leadership of the Taliban is in favour of granting conditional humanitarian access, the military leadership seems to respond to increased military pressure by restricting access. The military leadership appears not to explicitly violate official access policy, but it is clearly subordinate to military objectives. A commander from Kandahar stated that aid access changes in time of fighting between foreign troops because we dont trust them and we dont let any NGOs have access to our areas.
There were also more direct, and dangerous, consequences for aid agencies. In several instances, ISAF military operations appeared to have led to or were used to justify attacks on aid agencies. After ISAF raids and airstrikes in Faryab, for example, a Taliban commander claimed to have attacked NGO staff he believed had tipped off international forces. What proof of this he had was unclear. Aid agency staff may be the only outsiders travelling to a certain village, and underlying suspicions of aid agencies may make them the most likely suspects when something goes wrong.
While military pressure led to constraints on access, the inverse that less military pressure led to greater access was not always true. Where the Taliban were strong and unchallenged, the military leadership did not always object to granting conditional access, but in some districts of Kandahar there were severe restrictions on access based on previous negative experiences with or perceptions of aid agencies or the fear that they would undermine this control. In districts where the Taliban were weaker, commanders sometimes allowed limited access as a way to improve community support.
ISAFs kill/capture campaign, targeting senior and midlevel commanders, has also led to increased volatility in the Taliban command, a growing reliance on foreign fighters and the appointment of replacement commanders with few ties to local communities. Research found substantial differences in attitudes towards aid agencies among local Taliban, who had largely pragmatic reasons for fighting and were generally more amenable to aid agency presence, and Taliban from other parts of Afghanistan or from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, who were more likely to be ideologically motivated and more hostile to aid agencies.
More moderate local Taliban were typically well-connected with communities and more likely to listen to appeals from elders for aid, while the hardline, jihadist Taliban were perceived to be disruptive to aid access. Fighters coming from outside also generally have little regard for the Talibans political leadership and social policies. In Kandahar, this was particularly pronounced. One Kandahari elder stated that the Taliban used to be more cooperative, but the Taliban from Pakistan are oblivious to our suffering and now we cant even think of development or relief work in our areas.
Community acceptance or transfer of risk?
Aid agencies consistently reported relying on elders or other community members to negotiate access. In certain circumstances, pressure from communities and elders did appear to influence Taliban commanders, but this only appeared to work where elders where either trusted by the Taliban, or local commanders were not predisposed to limit access. Even Taliban who acknowledged that such negotiations occur were suspicious of aid agencies, fearing that elders might be corruptible by NGOs.
But there are significant risks. Those who vouch for aid agencies face dangerous consequences if they violate the Talibans rules. A commander in Faryab stated that, if an NGO is spying or doing something against our law, then we will punish the elders. This calls into question the ethics of approaches that require community members to risk their lives in order to obtain assistance.
Engaging with the Taliban on issues of aid access is fraught with numerous challenges, and the withdrawal of international troops will bring even greater uncertainty. Greater engagement is required, and indeed some aid agencies have established structured dialogue at all levels with the Taliban. The extensive access of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), guided by a policy of structured engagement and talking to all sides, shows the importance of engagement. UN engagement with the Taliban, as well as with the government, to facilitate polio vaccinations has long provided safe access to areas under Taliban control. Other agencies interviewed, particularly those working in the south and south-east, felt that engagement with high-level leadership as well as local commanders was essential within broader community acceptance approaches in enabling them to continue to work in volatile areas. Yet findings from this research clearly demonstrate that such approaches are not the norm; aid agencies need to enhance their understanding of this issue and pursue more rigorous approaches to working in Taliban areas.
Ashley Jackson is a Research Fellow in the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG). This article is based on Ashley Jackson and Antonio Giustozzi, Talking to the Other Side: Humanitarian Engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan, HPG Working Paper, December 2012, http://www.odi.org.uk/publications/6993-aid-conflict-humanitarian-engagement-policy-taliban-afghanistan.