NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - Aid agencies in Afghanistan may need to start working with the Taliban if they want to continue to help the country after foreign troops pull out in 2014, a new study by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) suggests.
After more than three decades of violence, Afghanistan remains one of the world's poorest countries. NATO-led forces, numbering around 130,000 at their peak, stationed there since 2001 to help fight the Taliban insurgency, are now withdrawing -- leaving scores of aid agencies in a precarious position.
"Talking to the other side: Humanitarian engagement with the Taliban in Afghanistan" -- based on almost 150 interviews with the Taliban, aid agencies and Afghans -- suggests there is a case for engagement between aid workers and militants in an environment where security and access will be unsure.
"The withdrawal of international troops will bring even greater uncertainty with regard to aid agency access," wrote authors Ashley Jackson and Antonio Giustozzi in the study by the London-based ODI's Humanitarian Policy Group.
"While engagement with the Taliban presents formidable risks and challenges, it is likely to become increasingly important for those agencies that wish to continue working in Afghanistan."
The South Asian nation is one of the least developed in the world -- a third of its population lives below the poverty line, more than half of children under the age of 5 are underweight and around 35 percent of Afghans are without jobs.
There are currently more than 100 major Afghan and international aid groups registered with the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief. There are also numerous U.N. agencies, Red Cross groups and smaller agencies.
Working on projects such as improving water and sanitation, building schools, and improving the nutrition of mothers and children in war-ravaged villages, aid agency staff often face opposition and danger.
Seen by Afghan militants as spies for the West, aid workers are a soft target -- their offices have been blown up, they have had bombs planted under their cars, they have been kidnapped and murdered.
But experts say targeted attacks aid staff are decreasing. According to the Afghan NGO Safety Office, attacks by militant groups on aid workers have decreased by 32 percent from last year.
But the gradual withdrawal of international troops -- who have helped provide a level of security and access in some parts of the country -- and a lack of confidence in Afghan forces, have left some aid groups concerned about working in such a volatile environment.
The ODI researchers, who focused on the provinces of Kandahar and Faryab, suggested that the attitude of senior Taliban political leaders towards aid groups was softening and that they had put in place a policy on relations with aid agencies.
The researchers reported that the Taliban was working with more than 20 aid agencies, including U.N. agencies, in Afghanistan. "Taliban leaders have an articulated policy on aid agency access. According to the Taliban Commissioner for the Arrangement and Control of Companies and Organisations, Qari Abas, agencies are required to register with the Taliban at senior leadership level." said the study.
"At the leadership level, the Taliban appear not to discriminate between organisations, whether U.N. or NGOs, Afghan or international. Indeed, a list of 26 registered organisations provided by Abas included U.N. agencies, national and international NGOs and human rights organisations."
WORKING WITH THE TALIBAN?
The U.N. has refused to comment on the study.
"OCHA does not comment on these externally written reports," wrote Christophe Verhellen, head of public information at the U.N. OCHA in Afghanistan in an emailed reply to AlertNet.
The report's authors say this is not unusual.
"Talking to the Taliban has often been seen as taboo by many humanitarian actors, and viewed by the government and military forces as an act of collaboration with the enemy. Although attitudes have changed in recent years, few aid agencies are willing to talk about this subject publicly."
"There are many reasons why aid agencies may want to keep such interactions confidential, including the fear of punitive action from the Afghan government, donors or international or Afghan security forces," the study added.
Aid agencies such as Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have long had to negotiate access to people in Taliban-controlled areas, it said.
In many cases, they do this through local Afghan workers who use community leaders as intermediaries to negotiate access and security with the Taliban.
But conditions are attached, the report says.
Registration with the Taliban means agencies must meet several conditions - including neutrality, approved sources of funding, respect for Taliban concepts of "Afghan culture" and, in certain circumstances, payment of tax.
As well as meeting general conditions, agencies have to subject individual projects to Taliban scrutiny, and approval is not always given.
Road building projects are opposed when they are perceived as being designed to thwart Taliban activities such as planting improvised explosive devices. There is, predictably, resistance to women's empowerment projects.
Even when aid groups’ work has been approved at the political level, security and access is not guaranteed, partly because the softer line taken by senior political Taliban leaders is not always matched by its military leaders on the ground, said the study. There is a need to examine the possibility of formal negotiations between aid agencies and the Taliban.
"It is clear ... that structured engagement in most circumstances, with multiple levels of the Taliban and with the community, provides the best guarantee of security for aid workers and the community," the report said