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NGOs and the Taliban

When I first started hearing about NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations that provide humanitarian aid and development services) cooperating with the Taliban, I was somewhat skeptical. The anecdotes persisted and yet I remained just slightly less skeptical, as Kabul can be full of false rumors and innuendo. But now someone with serious ground experience in the south, Alex Strick van Linschoten, has made this comment, as one of five issues he feels journalists should be covering in Afghanistan in 2009:

1. NGOs who indirectly (or directly) fund the Taliban - most people based down in southern Afghanistan have at least an inkling of an idea that this is what's happening; if you want to run a programme in remote districts of almost anywhere in the south you're going to have engage on some level with local Taliban. Most NGOs would counter that they're providing 'basic services' and so have 'no choice'. But at least some of the money they're putting into local economies to run their programmes are just being spent on bullets used to fight against foreign troops.

Of course, the Taliban (here defined as the insurgency writ large) finance their activities through a variety of means, including foreign donations, opium production and trafficking, direct ISI support and taxes and extortions rackets, etc.... A recent example of the latter would be the "Taliban tax" that contractors pay the Taliban for safe passage of goods from Karachi to points in Afghanistan.

As for the unnamed NGOs, are they paying a mafia-style protection fee in order to continue operating, giving Taliban some control over or input into the project, or just asking permission? Indeed, in some areas it may be that they are just asking for permission to operate, rather than paying for the privilege (as hinted at in this article by Anand Gopal). The stance of many NGOs and NGO coordination bodies of support/cooperating with the Taliban, while the industry in general consistently expresses anger at NATO/ISAF's expansion into humanitarian and development activities, amounts to a glaring condition of hypocrisy on the part of these unnamed NGOs: cooperating with Taliban is acceptable, cooperating with NATO/ISAF is not.

The argument of the NGO sector mirrors this excerpt from a book review by William Easterly:

In the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the military's dispensing of aid made it hard to tell the difference between military and nonmilitary aid workers, and the latter had to temporarily withdraw in the face of violence. And in recent months, as Afghanistan descends further into full-scale civil war, aid workers have lamented what they call the "securitization" of US development and reconstruction assistance, according to which most US aid has been channeled to some of the principal areas of military conflict in the south where it has little effect, rather than to more stable areas that have capacity for development. "How will the Afghan population know in the future if an offer of humanitarian aid does not hide a military operation?" asked MSF's Dr. Jean-Hervé Bradol.

And how will one know if an NGO is not in fact cooperating with and/or empowering the Taliban, who in turn then attack and kill workers from those NGOs who do not or did not pay protection or beg permission?

I don't want to go too far into the history of the politicization and militarization of humanitarian activities in Afghanistan, as I've already written about that here. My argument then was that NGOs and humanitarian groups dropped any pretence of being neutral parties in Afghanistan at the very beginning of the Soviet-Afghan war, and that their activities have always been perceived by Afghan power figures as, at the very least, a political activity, if not a military one. The behavior of many NGOs changed somewhat during the mujahideen era of the 1990s when they were able to locate inside Afghanistan rather than in Pakistan and the border areas. Patricia Grossman, formerly of of Human Rights Watch, describes the era:

Although some humanitarian groups had become more aware of the pitfalls of working through local leaders, securing ‘humanitarian space’ was inevitably a daily struggle of negotiating with (and paying protection money to) any number of commanders.

She goes on to describe the more well known interaction with the Taliban of the mid-1990s to 2001:

At the same time, the Taliban’s policies provided serious reasons for the humanitarian community to limit engagement. Its policies towards women, particularly banning women and girls from schools and universities and from most forms of employment outside the home, fuelled major confrontations with the international community. These policies have continued to strain the Taliban’s relationship with the UN and non-governmental relief organisations, leading some agencies to scale down programmes or threaten to withdraw non-emergency assistance altogether.

As for the current situation, the NGOs that are alleged to be cooperating with (and therefore legitimizing and reinforcing the authority of) the Taliban or other insurgents may wish to consult with their home office and their lawyers. Couldn't theybe legally liable? They know what insurgents are doing, and yet they are working with them in a manner that further enables them to attack not just the Afghan government and NATO troops, but Afghan civilians and fellow aid workers.

What do the Taliban have to say about civil-military relations between themselves and NGOs? They laid it out as command #26 in the Taliban Laheya:

26) Those NGOs that come to the country under the rule of the infidels must be treated as the government is treated. They have come under the guise of helping people but in fact are part of the regime. Thus we tolerate none of their activities, whether it be building of streets, bridges, clinics, schools, madrases (schools for Koran study) or other works. If a school fails to heed a warning to close, it must be burned. But all religious books must be secured beforehand.

"Treated as the government is treated" means to be killed. But rewind to rule #8:

8) A provincial, district or regional commander may not sign a contract to work for a non-governmental organization or accept money from an NGO. The Shura (the highest Taliban council) alone may determine all dealings with NGOs.

In 2006 Sami Yousufzai and Urs Gehriger interviewed Mullah Sabir, a high ranking Taliban commander about the Taliban Laheya rulebook, which included this exchange:

Q:What is your attitude towards NGOs which are building roads and digging wells to improve people's lives?

A: The organisations which have come here under the new administration only pretend to help the people. In reality they are part of the government. Whatever they may propose to build – bridges, clinics, schools – we will not tolerate their activities.

Unless of course they are in the south and have permission from the Quetta Shura. And permission in exchange for what? More answers are needed. And Alex Strick van Linschoten is right, journalists do need to be writing about this.

Further reading:

The Politicization and militarization of aid to Afghanistan

Afghanistan: The Forgotten War?

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