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Talking to the other side: humanitarian engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan

Research reports

Written by Ashley Jackson

‘Talking to the Other Side’ is based on almost 150 interviews with Afghans, aid agencies, Taliban and diplomats and offers a series of recommendations for the development of constructive negotiations. All these are underpinned by the logic of one of the report’s principal assertions: namely, that the greatest guarantee of security for aid workers and those they seek to help is structured engagement with the Taliban – in other words negotiations carried out at multiple levels to secure consent. 

Following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, humanitarian and development organisations had virtually free rein across Afghanistan, but this was greatly curtailed following the resurgence of the Taliban. As international aid agencies withdrew to more remote operations Afghan aid workers took on the brunt of responsibility for gaining access to people in need. The report examines how they frequently do so with little guidance or support from agency headquarters, leaving them to operate without collective rules, adequate procedures or security.  The report also highlights the Taliban’s often coercive attitudes toward civilians, calling into question aid agency approaches that rely on indirect negotiations through communities with Taliban. All too often, those who need assistance are forced to place themselves at risk to get it.

The research identifies elements of the Taliban leadership who – on the face of it – appear to offer an open door to negotiators.   But a fundamental challenge remains in securing Taliban cooperation at a local level where there is a more hostile view of aid organisations.  Overall, Taliban interviewed for the study expressed a position of antipathy toward aid organisations who are regarded as agents acting on behalf of enemy states; proselytising, anti-Islamic spies who, in their eyes, represent legitimate military targets. 

Ashley Jackson and Antonio Giustozzi