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The other side: humanitarian engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan

Time (GMT +00) 11:00 12:30


Kim Sengupta - Defence and Diplomatic correspondent of The Independent


Ashley Jackson - Research Fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group and co-author of the report

Dr Antonio Giustozzi - Visiting professor at King's College, Department of war Studies and co-author of the report

Introduction to the research

Ashley Jackson began by introducing the new report, Talking to the Other Side an investigation into humanitarian engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The research is based onnearly 150 interviews with the Taliban, aid workers, communities and diplomats in the Northern Afghan province of Faryab and the Southern province of Kandahar. Although in 2001, aid agencies had unfettered access to all Afghans in need of assistance, access deteriorated after 2006 in the context of increased violence. Humanitarian work continues in 2012, but under duress, and many aid agencies have withdrawn or reduced their activities. With Western alliance troops withdrawing in 2014 and the Taliban remaining influential in any plausible future scenario, humanitarian engagement with the Taliban will remain unavoidable. Talking to the Other Side confronts the challenges posed by such engagement and provides recommendations to all involved.

Taliban Leadership

Dr Antonio Giustozzi introduced the findings from interviews with the Taliban leadership. The senior leadership emphasise the importance of the Layha, a code of conduct for Taliban fighters, and stresses the role of commissions established to engage with aid agencies.

There are four official policies stressed by the Taliban leadership:

1) Registration: aid agencies are supposed to negotiate for access and local commanders can only lodge disagreements with the senior leadership in Pakistan. However, in practice, there are discrepancies between the Taliban’s list of registered organisations and reports from the ground.

2) Organisations must pledge not to commit ‘hostile acts’: There is considerable suspicion surrounding humanitarian work and collaboration comes with troublesome consequences.

3) Taliban ‘taxes’: Humanitarian work is supposed to be exempt from taxes payable to the Taliban, including corporate humanitarian work and some development work, although some work (like building roads) is taxable.

4) Monitoring: Anecdotal evidence of monitoring exists, although neither the Taliban, nor humanitarian organisations wish to discuss the details.

The source of funding did not concern the Taliban leadership and occasional objections from local Taliban did not obstruct American- or British-funded humanitarian work.

Ashley Jackson added that the Taliban leadership is open to engaging with aid agencies, as it provides legitimacy and the appearance of a unified and formal movement, regardless of whether or not this reflected the reality on the ground.

Local Taliban

Dr Antonio Giustozzi explained that the cadre of Taliban leadership are familiar with policy from ‘the top’ and may seek exemptions or changes to the rules. In Kandahar, for example, escalating conflict led to the Taliban imposing stricter restrictions and to a more difficult environment for humanitarian work.

Suspicion and monitoring make humanitarian work even more difficult. The Taliban has a reputation for swift justice, and NGOs and humanitarian organisations are at risk of being unfairly accused of spying. The mobility of aid workers and their foreign links make them plausible suspects. Although aware of their own ignorance, Taliban commanders may willingly bypass the civilian rules in their search for scapegoats and in pursuit of respect from the rank-and-file.

Compared to more senior Taliban, the local commander, with 10 to 20 men on the ground, is much less likely to be informed about policy or outspoken about development. Although nominally educated, commanders are often functionally illiterate and certainly not informed of humanitarian principles. Instead, Taliban commanders are generally suspicious of NGOs, with hostility and prejudice increasing as one descends the hierarchy.

Generally, elders find it much easier to interact with local Taliban that come from the same communities compared to the Taliban labeled as ‘foreign’, ‘al-Qaeda’ or ‘from Pakistan’. While local Taliban are likely to compromise or accommodate humanitarian actors or local concerns, the ‘other’ Taliban come to enforce the rules imposed by senior leadership and are usually much stricter.


Dr Antonio Giustozzi considered the role of tribal elders, who serve as local leaders and mediators between the Taliban and local communities. There is variety among elders and their strengths, interests and attitudes toward the Taliban.

Elders and commanders alike are generally critical of development organisations. The short-term projects are criticised as superficial and self-interested, and the Taliban commanders often mimic the content and tone of constructive elder critiques. Criticism is not simply ideological, but reflects practical concerns, such as naïve collaborations, frivolous or wasteful expenses.

Ashley Jackson felt it difficult to determine whether or not elders seek their role as mediators. Some elders feel they are better positioned to engage with the Taliban, particularly those they already know from the community, but it remains a challenging responsibility. Lacking schools, health care or roads, there are compelling pressures to embrace aid. However, the task can be thankless, particularly if agencies are suspected of misdeeds and the elders subsequently face Taliban punishment.

Two Chains of Command

Dr Antonio Giustozzi stressed the competition between the two chains of command and explained that the military situation on the ground is influential in determining how the local Taliban engage with the leadership:

1) The civilian government: includes governors, judges and the people responsible for interacting with humanitarian and development organisations at local level. It is focused on formal rule and is heavily armed.

2) The military commission: can be thought of as the Taliban’s defence ministry. If conflict escalates, the commission might consider it perfectly legitimate to bypass the civilian chain of command and ban aid organisations. The targeting of Taliban commanders can often lead to accusations of spying. The banning of NGOs and aid organisations is a noted form of retaliation, in addition to closing schools following escalating attacks and night raids.

Forms and Consequences of Engagement

Ashley Jackson outlined two important ways in which aid agencies approach their work:

1) Structured engagement: agencies including ICRC and MSF directly and publicly engage with the Taliban at the leadership, provincial and local level.

2) Indirect engagement: the majority of agencies shy away from directly negotiating with the Taliban for access, relying on community acceptance and upon elders and other influencers to mediate access.

Indirect engagement may actually transfer risk and call into question whether elders or other locals can mediate with a coercive and armed group. Many managers and heads of aid agencies do not know who negotiates access on the ground and lack policies on access. The burden often falls to junior staff from local villages who are particularly vulnerable to coercive tactics. Likewise, elders are to be punished if NGOs are suspected of spying or unlawful activity. The majority of international agencies have Afghan employees with invaluable local knowledge, but the assumption that they face less risk than international employees is misguided.  Junior local staffs deserve more support from senior staff in Afghanistan or abroad.

Great divergence in the understanding of ambiguous foreign laws can discourage aid agencies from publicly engaging with the Taliban. Some aid agencies believe they can be kicked out of the country for talking to the Taliban or that they can be sent to jail in the United States if talking to the Taliban and receiving American funding. Agencies receiving American funding do have to submit the names of beneficiaries to the American government. However, there is no American law against talking to the Taliban and some agencies publicly engage with the Taliban without reprimand.

Wendy Fenton from the Humanitarian Practice Network questioned the dichotomy between structured engagement and community acceptance strategies, suggesting that there might be agencies that pursue both. Furthermore, it is often implied that in order to pursue principled humanitarian action, you must focus on humanitarian activity only, whereas this might not be true in practice.

Ashley Jackson agreed that the practice of impartiality is more important for gaining trust than a declaration of principles or a specific area of programming. It is more important for the Taliban, government and communities to see you talking to all sides and doing good work.

Women’s Rights

Dr Antonio Giustozzi agreed that the Taliban’s interpretation of women’s rights, informed by their belief in the Koran, might appear to be a contentious matter. The Taliban permit women to work, albeit only with other women, and disallow contact with men in the office or in other workplaces. Yet, while some international organisations might find the restrictions problematic, the issue is rarely considered objectionable by Afghan NGOs or elders. There are no instances of the Taliban banning women from working with agencies and even if women are permitted to work in new areas, they often remain unwilling. The issue is one of practice more than policy and is compounded by the risks of travel.

Ashley Jackson felt that, on the issue of women’s rights and beyond, agencies and elders alike struggle with whether or not to acquiesce to the Taliban. Some elders are pragmatic, agreeing to go without women teachers and nurses rather than having no clinic or school at all. Some agencies likewise accept those conditions in order to win influence over the long-term. Others are defiant and accept the consequences of adhering to their values.


Ashley Jackson suggested four areas for further engagement:

1) Greater coordination and information sharing between agencies: aid agencies don’t talk to each other about how to negotiate access. The policy is “don’t ask, don’t tell” among and within organisations. Without common standards, agencies are unable to stand firm in the face of coercion and ultimately compromise on issues like having female nurses and doctors in clinics or whether or not to pay taxes.

2) Building dialogue between humanitarian and political talks: There is very little dialogue between political actors negotiating at a leadership level and humanitarian actors negotiating for access on the ground on a daily basis.

3) More funding for analysis and assessment of volatile or Taliban-influenced areas

4) Better donor dialogue and support for agencies working in these areas

Sandrine Tiller from Médecins Sans Frontières challenged the recommendation for more coordination among agencies. Some NGOs have clearly aligned with the Western alliance in pursuit of funding. Coordination between agencies with different reputations may ultimately be counterproductive for those that have established their independence and impartiality. Now is the time for many foreign NGOs to reclaim the humanitarian space and deal with the consequences of taking sides.

Ashley Jackson agreed that the humanitarian community is fractured, but still feels confidential and discreet discussions between like-minded organisations would be of considerable benefit.

What’s Working?

Ashley Jackson hesitated to declare any approach as a model for Afghanistan, declaring agility and adaptation as ideal. However, structured engagement in the South, in which national and international aid agencies earn the trust of civilian leadership and military commanders, is producing inspiring examples. One Southern agency with a long presence and considerable trust sends women to college in Kabul to pursue vocational training, for example.

Dr Antonio Giustozzi explained that many of the more successful agencies have built trust with others over the course of many years. It is difficult and time consuming for other organisations to acquire the same knowledge and some NGOs are actually reluctant to share their knowledge and access in order to protect their spheres of influence.

Looking Back and the Road Ahead

Dr Antonio Giustozzi noted that while many agencies have found it increasingly difficult to operate within Afghanistan, Taliban commanders have not held their positions long enough to be able to reflect upon these changes. Elders quite clearly remember the period when the Taliban were in control of Kandahar, were more self-confident and easier to deal with. Since the troop surge, the Taliban seek to make life more difficult for everyone.

With that in mind, the Taliban are not the only armed group in the country. Many elders in the North find the militia a helpful presence, whereas elders in Kandahar often expressed the view that armed groups and the local police are badly behaved and may actually pose a more serious threat than the Taliban.

Ashley Jackson agreed that, in the years to come, successful political settlement would imply greater stability and improve access. However, the Taliban is intensely suspicious of aid agencies. The disproportionate funding allocated by donors to provinces with foreign troops has jeopardized the independence and impartiality of these agencies and may undermine future work. Furthermore, there is a legitimate fear that the withdrawal of troops may be accompanied by a rapid and devastating depletion of development and humanitarian funding.


This event has been scheduled to launch a new report into how aid agencies engage with the Taliban to gain access to Afghans in need of assistance. This research offers insight into how the Taliban view humanitarian and development assistance. It draws on dozens of interviews with Taliban militia and leaders and conversely, investigates the approaches used by aid agencies to gain access to populations in Taliban-held territory.

The first substantive research of its kind into aid access, 'The Other Side' sheds light on the issues that aid agencies have been reluctant to speak about openly. The report was compiled following almost 150 interviews with Afghans, aid agencies, Taliban and diplomats and offers a series of recommendations on humanitarian negotiations for aid agencies, donor governments - and the Taliban. This event offers an opportunity for the authors to discuss these recommendations and other aspects of their research into humanitarian negotiations with the Taliban.