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Aid workers 'will be at the mercy of the Taliban' after Afghan withdrawal

Report warns of risks NGOs will face when negotiating directly with insurgents from 2014

Humanitarian projects in Afghanistan will come to a critical crossroads after the withdrawal of international forces in two years, making it imperative for aid agencies to work with the Taliban in some areas.

However, that will be fraught with difficulties and danger, and firm guidelines must be established to ensure that the vital work can be carried out while safeguarding those taking part, a new report points out.

"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, an author of the report The Other Side, by the Humanitarian Policy Group. It is the first substantive document of its kind and is based on around 150 interviews with Taliban fighters at various levels of command, as well as non-governmental organisations and diplomats.

It charts how the relatively free access aid agencies had after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 began to disappear as the insurgency resurfaced. "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… 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 says.

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 study, commissioned by the Overseas Development Institute, points out that the response of insurgents to aid workers varies widely from place to place. The Taliban leadership has a general set of rules for aid agencies, including registering, liaison, adherence to what they consider to be Afghan notions of culture and, sometimes, payment of informal taxes.

However, commanders may be antagonistic towards the building of roads because they can be used by international and Afghan government forces, or towards Western conceptions of women's rights, or may even consider foreign personnel as spies. There were also differences in attitudes between Afghan insurgents who wanted to see their communities benefit from international funds, and foreign jihadists from Pakistan and elsewhere driven by theocratic ideology.

Nevertheless, the report concludes: "[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."

Just as the Western mission in Afghanistan experienced discord between its political and military leadership, so, too, does the insurgency.Antonio Giustozzi, a co-author of the study, said: "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."