AFGHANISTAN: Talking to the Taliban


Photo: Salih/IRIN
Mullah Abdul Salaam was a Taliban commander before he joined the government in 2007

KABUL, 11 March 2010 (IRIN) – The insurgents in Afghanistan have shown interest in negotiating with the UN and aid agencies on humanitarian access and aid distributions, according to a purported Taliban spokesman.

“If aid agencies contact our local Mujahedin and reach an agreement we would vouch for the safety of their workers and convoys,” Qari Yosuf Ahmadi told IRIN on the phone from an undisclosed location.

“Whether it’s a vaccination campaign or food aid distribution they [aid agencies] can do their activities in consultation and agreement with us,” he said.

“Support letters” issued by the insurgents have reportedly helped vaccinators to immunize children in areas controlled by the Taliban over the past year.

Taliban leaders have rejected all offers of talks with the government over the past few years, but in recent months the momentum behind efforts to search for some kind of negotiated settlement has increased.

Kai Eide, the former special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Afghanistan, backed high-level political negotiations with the insurgents in order to end armed violence in the country.

“The overall strategy must be de-militarized and a political process of reconciliation must be launched,” Eide said in his last policy paper in March.

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How to negotiate? 

Antonio Donini, a humanitarian expert and senior researcher at the Feinstein International Center, says aid agencies should not rush, individually, to the negotiating table with the Taliban because that could cause confusion.

He said one agency, ideally the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), should lead and manage access talks on behalf of the humanitarian community.

“In a conflict situation like Afghanistan, OCHA needs to be in touch with, and negotiate with, all parties to the conflict,” Donini told IRIN, citing UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182.

Direct negotiations with the insurgents, who have been accused of deliberate attacks on aid workers, could be risky as the insurgency is structurally disorganized, some experts say. Others say such negotiations would be worth a try.

“Perhaps the Taliban would use this in their propaganda, but the risks are minimal and there is no alternative that respects humanitarian principles,” said Donini.

Negotiations in themselves may not necessarily lead to improved access: Even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which maintains contacts with all warring parties, does not have unrestricted access to all parts of the country.

Insurgents have not intentionally attacked ICRC staff and facilities – not the case with the UN and other aid agencies.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing of five UN staff at a private guest house in Kabul in October 2009, but they unconditionally released four ICRC staff (two Afghans and two foreigners) after they were abducted in Wardak Province in September 2007.


Photo: Fardin Waezi/UNAMA
Former UN envoy Kai Eide backed negotiations with insurgents

Armed escorts

Purported Taliban spokesman Ahmadi warned that aid should not be used for political ends. “Aid must not be distributed by government officials as a way of luring recipients to support the government,” he said.

He confirmed the insurgents would attack aid convoys which use armed escorts from the Afghan police or private security companies.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP), which hires private truckers to transport food items and uses armed escorts in some parts of the country, reported a 30 percent reduction in attacks on food aid convoys in 2009 compared to 2008. Only two attacks have been reported so far this year.

“We work closely with local communities to ensure that WFP food assistance reaches the people it is intended to help. In a few areas, if the transporters request it, we ask the Afghan National Police to escort convoys of commercial trucks carrying WFP food,” Challiss McDonough, a WFP spokeswoman in Kabul, told IRIN.

WFP does not exclusively blame the insurgents for all the attacks on food aid convoys: “Food is a valuable commodity, especially in a country with so much poverty and food-insecurity, and so convoys of food assistance can be an attractive target for a variety of different groups.”

The use of armed escorts is not welcomed by humanitarian experts who say the military can only be involved in aid activities as a last resort.

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