Talking to the Other Side: Humanitarian Engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan

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By Ashley Jackson and Antonio Giustozzi

As international troops withdraw from Afghanistan a new report sheds light on how aid agencies engage with the Taliban to gain access to Afghans in need of assistance. The authors focus on how the Taliban view aid agencies by drawing on dozens of interviews with Taliban leaders and fighters. The first substantive research of its kind into access, ‘The Other Side’ illuminates issues that aid workers have been reluctant to speak about openly.

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 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. “Aid agencies’ access 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.

The research identifies elements of the Taliban leadership who – on the face of it – appear to offer an open door to negotiators. “While the political leadership of the Taliban may favour engagement with aid agencies challenges remain in the uneven control of Taliban fighters by the leadership and the overwhelming hostility expressed by Taliban toward aid organisations which have become strongly associated with the international military,” said Antonio Giustozzi, co-author of the report.

For more information or requests for interview with the author/s please contact:
Chris Harmer on ** 44 (0) 207 922 0335 Or report co-author, Ashley Jackson on ** 44 (0)758 296 4576

Read the full report.