Talking to the other side - Overseas Development Institute

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                                             HPG Policy Brief 50
                                             December 2012
  Policy Group

                                             Talking to the other side
                                             Taliban perspectives on aid and
                                             development work in Afghanistan
                                             Ashley Jackson and Antonio Giustozzi

                                              Key messages

                                              • Taliban leaders have an established               highlighted the often coercive Taliban
                                                policy on aid access that is relatively well      attitudes towards civilians and raised
                                                understood by fighters on the ground.             serious questions about the transfer of
                                                However, interpretations of this policy           risk in aid agency approaches focused on
                                                are fluid and adherence is variable.              gaining ‘community acceptance’.
                                              • While Taliban leaders convey greater            • The withdrawal of international forces in
                                                openness towards aid agencies,                    2014 will bring even greater uncertainty
                                                interviews revealed a deep distrust               with regard to humanitarian access.
                                                and suspicion of aid agencies. This               While negotiating with the Taliban
                                                related to their perceived partiality and         presents formidable challenges, it is
                                                to criticisms of their effectiveness and          likely to become increasingly important
                                                transparency.                                     for aid agencies that wish to continue
                                              • Research with civilians and Taliban               working in Afghanistan.

                                             In the years immediately following the fall        Kandahar, to examine these issues in depth.
                                             of the Taliban regime in 2001, aid agencies        The study provides an overview of the Taliban’s
                                             were able to access the vast majority of           structure and policies on aid access, and how
                                             Afghanistan. The subsequent resurgence of          these policies are interpreted and implemented
                                             the Taliban, beginning in the south and east,      at the local level.1
Ashley Jackson is a Research Fellow in
                                             saw heightened levels of violence and civilian
the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG).
                                             casualties as well as a sharp rise in attacks      Taliban structure and hierarchy
Antonio Giustozzi is Visiting Professor in   on aid workers. While aid agencies were
the Department of War Studies at King’s      intentionally targeted in this initial period of   The Taliban are formally organised around two
College London.                              Taliban revival, there appears to have been a      main centres in Pakistan: Quetta, which is the
                                             shift indicating greater openness toward aid       seat of the Political Commission, and Pesha-
Overseas Development Institute               actors in recent years.                            war, the seat of the Military and Finance Com-
203 Blackfriars Road,
                                                                                                missions. Subordinate to these, the Taliban
London SE1 8NJ
Tel: +44 (0)20 7922 0300                     Little substantive research has been conducted     have established commissions dealing with
Fax: +44 (0)20 7922 0399                     on Taliban attitudes towards aid agencies.         policy and strategy in various areas including aid
                                             This HPG Policy Brief summarises research          agency engagement (through the Commission
and                           conducted in Afghanistan involving almost 40       for the Arrangement and Control of Companies
                                             interviews with the Taliban as well as more than   and Organisations). They have also established
                                             100 interviews with aid agencies and ordinary      a code of conduct for their fighters, the Layha.
                                             Afghans, examining Taliban attitudes and
                                                                                                1 For the full research findings, see Ashley Jackson
                                             policies toward aid agencies and humanitarian      and Antonio Giustozzi, Talking to the Other Side:
                                             and development work. Field research focused       Humanitarian Engagement with the Taliban in
                                             on two provincial case studies, Faryab and         Afghanistan, HPG Working Paper (London: ODI, 2012).
HPG Policy Brief 50

                 Within Afghanistan, Provincial Military Comm-           wide range of sources, including both the UN and
                 issioners, with subordinate district-level Military     the US government. According to Abas, ‘it doesn’t
                 Commissioners, supervise Taliban operations and         matter to us whether it is American money or the
                 report to regional Military Commissions. Comple-        money of the UN’, implying that agencies operating
                 menting these military functions, Shadow Governors      with this funding would be tolerated as long as
                 act as the ‘civilian’ authority at provincial level,    they followed the Taliban’s rules. However, many
                 reinforcing the visibility of the Taliban as a viable   local commanders exhibited negative attitudes
                 alternative to the Afghan government. However,          towards and suspicion of funding from International
                 Shadow Governors have rarely been present on            Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troop-contributing
                 the ground since 2010 because of the high level of      countries.
                 threat from international forces and their influence
                 is variable, with research indicating that military     There does not appear to be marked discrimination
                 figures exert greater authority.                        among project types or activities within official policy.
                                                                         However, some projects, such as road construction,
                 In theory, military commanders and political figures    were objectionable when they appeared to go
                 at regional, provincial and district level should       against military interests. Taliban at all levels
                 adhere to what the leadership dictates. However,        were also critical of aspects of humanitarian and
                 the Taliban have a weak centre and as a movement        development work for its perceived inefficiency
                 is ‘federal’ in character. There appears to be a        and partiality. There was also, perhaps predictably,
                 tendency to use bodies such as the commissions          strong resistance to Western notions of women’s
                 and Shadow Governors as institutional lookalikes        rights. These trends were more pronounced among
                 for political propaganda purposes. The degree           Taliban at the local level.
                 to which they actually function and influence
                 decision-making is variable, although interviews        In order to register, aid agencies interviewed reported
                 with provincial and district commanders showed          liaising with interlocutors in Afghanistan or Pakistan
                 some evidence of these structures playing a role at     to gain access to the Taliban leadership. Once
                 local level. In practice, personality, leadership and   registered, agencies are advised to com-municate
                 charisma have great importance across the various       with provincial or local commanders in their areas
                 Taliban networks.                                       of operation. Local Taliban are then expected to
                                                                         monitor the implementation of aid agency activities
                 Given the diversity among and across the various        and agencies’ adherence to the rules.
                 networks comprising the Taliban, leadership orders
                 and decrees are framed in such a way as to satisfy      This policy was fairly well understood by provincial
                 the various components of the movement and              Taliban leaders in both Faryab and Kandahar.
                 prevent friction between the loosely assembled          Registration at the senior level appeared to be
                 parts of the organisation. This vagueness and           critical; while some commanders were willing to
                 the imprecise phrasing of policy allow room for         strike local deals with unregistered agencies, these
                 manoeuvre. Personal negotiations and relationships      appeared precarious and vulnerable to disruption
                 at all levels play an important role, as evidenced in   by rival or hardline commanders. The Taliban at
                 the variety of attitudes towards aid access.            the local level also appeared to be capable of
                                                                         monitoring adherence to conditions for access and
                 Taliban policy on aid access                            enforcing them. In many instances, Taliban reported
                                                                         monitoring projects through informants within aid
                 Taliban leaders have an articulated policy on aid       agencies. Projects appeared to be monitored for
                 agency access. According to the Taliban Commiss-        efficiency, and to ensure that aid agencies were not
                 ioner for the Arrangement and Control of Companies      engaging in ‘espionage’. As such, hiring local staff
                 and Organisations, Qari Abas, agencies are required     was seen as important: a commander in Panjwai
                 to register with the Taliban at senior leadership       pointed out that ‘when from 60 to 100 local people
                 level. Registration requires agencies to meet several   are involved in a project, how would they be able to
                 conditions, including neutrality, respect for Taliban   work for hidden targets?’. When rules are broken,
                 concepts of ‘Afghan culture’ and, in certain circum-    the consequences for aid agencies can be severe,
                 stances, payment of tax.                                ranging from warnings or the temporary closure
                                                                         of projects to attacks on staff. The leadership was
                 At the leadership level, the Taliban appear not to      eager to stress that attacks on aid agencies were not
                 discriminate between organisations, whether UN or       indiscriminate, but local commanders nonetheless
                 NGOs, Afghan or international. Indeed, a list of 26     appeared authorised to expel, attack or harass aid
                 registered organisations provided by Abas included      agencies.
                 UN agencies, national and international NGOs and
                 human rights organisations. Agencies that the           While the political leadership may be attempting
                 Taliban claim are registered rely on funding from a     to give the appearance of a viable structure and

                                                                                                            Policy Brief 50   HPG

an open attitude towards aid actors, their ability      There was also a fear that aid agencies failed
to ensure that military commanders and fighters         to respect Afghan culture and Islamic values, at
on the ground share these views is limited.             least as defined by the Taliban. Western views of
The vagueness and imprecision of ‘official’             women’s rights were the most contentious point,
policy accord significant discretion to local com-      and were widely seen as a prime example of
manders. The rules are fluid and vary depending         the apparent morally corrosive implications of
on who is in charge, but several factors appear         Western-defined ‘development’. A senior military
critical in shaping access constraints, including       commander in Faryab commented that ‘the UN
personal experience of aid agencies and military        and NGOs are talking about rights of women that
pressure.                                               they have made up themselves. They say women
                                                        have the right to work with men, go everywhere,
Taliban perceptions of aid agencies                     do what they want – but these are not the rights of
                                                        women’. Similar views were expressed in Kandahar,
In general, Taliban found it difficult to distinguish   and both Taliban and aid agency staff reported
between different actors, particularly at the local     incidents where the Taliban exerted pressure on
level (NGOs, UN agencies, the UN Assistance             aid agencies, including banning female staff from
Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), for-profit              working in health clinics and schools. However,
contractors, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs)     there appeared to be room for negotiation under
and so on). In some instances, there were more          some circumstances. Some aid workers reported
favourable attitudes towards NGOs in general or         that they were able to overcome initial Taliban
specifically towards Afghan NGOs than towards the       opposition to agencies working with women, and
UN. Where commanders could distinguish between          many felt that the Taliban would allow at least
the various components of the UN, UNAMA was             limited female employment or work with women
seen less favourably than other agencies. UNAMA’s       as long as ‘Afghan culture’ was seen as being
support to the Afghan government is explicitly          respected (for example, on the condition that
described by some Taliban as compromising the           female employees only work with Afghan women).
position of all UN agencies.
                                                        A minority of Taliban interviewed during this
In general, there was a high degree of hostility        research held positive views of aid agencies. Positive
towards aid actors. Accusations of spying for           associations were often directly related to personal
foreign governments or being at their service           experience: one fighter’s father, for instance, had
were repeatedly expressed. Some more radical            worked for a UN agency; a Taliban commander
Taliban felt that, because NGOs cooperate with          praised UN agencies and NGOs for providing school
parties to the conflict, they were legitimate           supplies and clearing irrigation ditches. Despite
targets. Counterinsurgency tactics seem to have         the widespread suspicion of aid agencies, these
influenced the perceptions of some Taliban,             comments underscore the importance of high-quality,
particularly in Kandahar. Many reported that they       needs-based programming and transparency. They
had been amenable to granting aid agencies              also suggest that experiences with one aid agency,
access, but had changed their view when they            whether positive or negative, are likely to influence
saw agencies increasingly working only in               Taliban views of aid agencies in general.
government-controlled areas and coming into
previously insecure areas after they had been           Military pressure
‘cleared’. In many cases, this confirmed their
suspicions of agencies being aligned with the           While the political leadership of the Taliban favours
government and ISAF.                                    granting conditional humanitarian access, the
                                                        military leadership often responds to increased
The Taliban, and indeed many community members,         military pressure by restricting humanitarian
felt that aid was being distributed in an imbalanced    access. The military leadership appears not to
way, and that programmes were ineffective and           explicitly violate official policy on humanitarian
short term. In the words of one Faryab commander        access, but such concerns are clearly subordinate
from Almar district, aid agencies’ work was ‘totally    to military objectives. For example, a commander
disposable, not permanent’ and ‘they just help          from Spin Boldak in Kandahar stated that aid
you enough to survive’. There was also anger at         access ‘changes in time of fighting between foreign
the perceived ineffectiveness of aid, with one          troops because we don’t trust them and we don’t
commander from Maruf district commenting that           let any NGOs have access to our areas’.
‘huge amounts are spent in Kandahar but we have
not seen any project during the last decade that        There were also more direct, and dangerous,
has brought any positive change to our lives’.          consequences for aid agencies. In several instances,
Poor-quality projects reinforced suspicions that aid    ISAF military operations appeared to have led to or
agencies had ulterior motives.                          were used to justify attacks on aid agencies. After

HPG Policy Brief 50

                 ISAF raids and airstrikes in Faryab, for example, a     local Taliban used to be more cooperative, but
                 Taliban commander claimed to have attacked NGO          that recently arrived ‘Taliban from Pakistan are
                 staff whom he believed had tipped off international     oblivious to our suffering and now we can’t even
                 forces. What proof he had to substantiate this          think of development or relief work in our areas’.
                 assertion was unclear. Aid agency staff may be the
                 only ‘outsiders’ travelling to a certain village, and   The role of communities
                 underlying suspicions of aid agencies may make
                 them the most likely suspects when something            Aid agencies consistently reported relying on
                 goes wrong.                                             elders or other community members to arrange
                                                                         access with the Taliban. In certain circumstances,
                 While military pressure led to constraints on access,   pressure from communities and elders appeared to
                 the inverse – that less military pressure led to        induce Taliban commanders to allow access. This
                 greater access – was not always true. In some cases     only appeared to work where elders where either
                 where the Taliban were strong and unchallenged,         trusted by the Taliban, or local commanders were
                 the military leadership attempted to place severe       not predisposed to limit access. Even Taliban who
                 restrictions on access. However, where the Taliban      acknowledged that such negotiations had taken
                 were weaker some commanders tended to grant a           place were suspicious of elders advocating for
                 measure of access in order to maintain community        aid agency presence, fearing that they might be
                 support.                                                ‘corruptible’ by NGOs.

                 ISAF’s kill/capture campaign, targeting senior          Interviews with elders and the Taliban highlighted
                 and mid-level commanders, has led to increased          the risks that elders faced in mediating on behalf of
                 volatility in the Taliban command and resultant         aid agencies. Those who vouched for aid agencies
                 access challenges. Heavy losses sustained by the        faced dangerous consequences if the agencies
                 Taliban have led to a growing reliance on ‘foreign’     then violated the Taliban’s rules. A commander in
                 fighters or the appointment of replacement              Almar district of Faryab stated that, if an ‘NGO is
                 commanders with few ties to local communities.          spying or doing something against our law, then
                 This research found substantial differences in          we will punish the elders’. This calls into question
                 attitudes towards aid agencies among local Taliban,     the viability, both operationally and ethically, of
                 who have largely pragmatic reasons for being part       such approaches. In particular, there are serious
                 of the insurgency, and Taliban from other parts of      questions about the transfer of risk to community
                 Afghanistan or from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, who        members, who are being asked to put their lives at
                 are more likely to be ideologically motivated.          risk in order to obtain assistance.

                 Local Taliban saw hardline jihadists as disruptive      Conclusion
                 to aid access, in contrast to more moderate
                 local Taliban, who were typically well-connected        Engaging with the Taliban on issues of aid access
                 with communities and more likely to listen              is fraught with challenges, and the withdrawal of
                 to appeals from elders. Fighters coming from            international troops in 2014 will bring even greater
                 outside also generally had little regard for the        uncertainty. Yet findings from this research clearly
                 Taliban’s political leadership. This was particularly   demonstrate the need for aid agencies to enhance
                 pronounced in Kandahar. Aid agency sources              their understanding of this issue and pursue more
                 reported harassment and hostile behaviour by            rigorous and structured approaches to working in
                 Pakistani Taliban from Baluchistan in the first         Taliban areas. While engagement with the Taliban
                 half of 2012 – a timeframe corresponding to a           presents formidable risks and challenges, pursuing
                 Taliban surge into southern Afghanistan aimed           a structured, informed approach to humanitarian
                 at instilling vigour into the insurgency. One elder     dialogue is increasingly critical for agencies
                 in Shah Wali Kot district in Kandahar stated that       committed to continuing to work in Afghanistan.


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