As the Taliban gain control of Afghanistan, the humanitarian crisis has continued to mount. With an estimated 270,000 people already internally displaced, and an oncoming drought, the need for humanitarian work is likely to increase further. Humanitarian organizations remaining in Afghanistan will have to find ways to work within Taliban controlled territory if they want to deliver aid to those in need. How can they gain approval to operate under the new regime?
This is known as securing NGO acceptance and, in a security framework, it sits alongside deterrence and protection as one of the three main security strategies. In the current climate, deterrence and protection are virtually impossible, making acceptance the primary way for organizations in Afghanistan to protect their staff.
Currently, the Taliban want foreign aid and are contacting NGOs to ask them to stay. While many NGOs have already left, others have chosen to stay behind. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) announced that it is in talks with the Taliban and the Red Cross (ICRC) continued medical work in Kandahar even as the city fell. Doctors Without Borders is continuing to run projects in five locations across the country and there is the World Food Program, which has been in Afghanistan continuously since 1962. The staff of these NGOs will be lying low, sanitizing their social media and waiting for the conflict to settle.
However this is not new; many areas of Afghanistan have been under the control of the Taliban for the past decade, and numerous NGOs have been operating in these regions with Taliban permission. U.N. engagement with the Taliban paved the way for a polio vaccination program that reached some of the most isolated areas of the country. Then there is the case of Kunduz, a major regional capital that has twice been briefly held by the Taliban in recent years. During the assault on Kunduz City in 2015, local Taliban officials contacted aid agencies prior to occupation, advising that foreign aid workers would be protected. Later, during the capture of the city, no humanitarian staff were killed or injured by militants.
However, there are other incidents that highlight the risks to continued NGO operations. On June 8, militants stormed the compound of a U.K.-based aid agency, HALO Trust, in Baghlani Jadid district, killing ten. The Taliban immediately denied responsibility for the attack. Even if the Taliban choose not to threaten NGOs, it remains to be seen if they can provide a security environment that prevents attacks from other actors, such as Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP). HALO Trust has since announced that they will be continuing their operations in Afghanistan.
NGOs can prepare for working in Taliban-controlled territory by looking at past operations under the Taliban. For example, in 2015, the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS) and Service Civil International (SCI) maintained life-saving assistance during the occupation of Kunduz throughout periods of intense conflict. This was achieved by switching to remote management of operations while using airlift for operational resupply. One of the main lessons learnt by NGOs from the panicked evacuation of Kunduz was to keep field management teams at a minimum safe distance from conflict, so that they can be quickly redeployed as conflict stabilized.
Once conflict is over, the new local power structure will need to be carefully mapped out. To secure acceptance, NGOs will need to understand who the local power brokers are and establish relationships with them. This is likely to include registration with senior Taliban leadership as well as approval from local officials. The Taliban have announced in many areas that they can be contacted through their local mosques. Where possible, introductions should be made by individuals who already have a positive relationship with them.
Some organizations will be better placed than others to secure acceptance in Taliban-occupied territories. Regional and local NGOs (LNGOs) may be preferred to large international NGOs (INGOs). Muslim organizations, especially those rooted in Sunni Islam, will also find it easier to gain acceptance. On the other hand, U.S. aid organizations may face additional challenges, especially those who may be seen to have worked closely with the previous Afghan government or the U.S. military.
Only certain types of programming are likely to be accepted in Taliban-controlled territories. The delivery of shelter and non-food items will be welcomed by Taliban forces. On the other hand, education, delivery of contraception, and work on gender-based violence will be controversial. Organizations focused on delivering medical aid will be in high demand, but procedures relating to female genital mutilation are likely to be prohibited. Program objectives should be communicated clearly at a community level, in a way that can be understood. The messaging should address any concerns a local population is likely to have, while also being permissible by local Taliban officials.
Right now, the Taliban seem to be allowing more movement to foreign nationals than local Afghans, who are stopped at checkpoints and prevented from leaving the country. Employing local staff is one of the most effective ways to secure acceptance, but now it could be an operational risk. Organizations will have to understand the new risks posed to local hires and handle their data with extreme care.
The profile of individual aid workers must then be considered before deployment – their ethnicity, religion, political views, or sexual orientation may put them at an additional risk. Workers may need to scrub their social media profiles to ensure their safety. Another important consideration is staff member’s gender. Women are at a higher risk of violence and organizations will be considering whether they can keep their female staff in-country.
Although the Taliban have said that women will be able to continue education and work, many foreign commentators are not convinced. Women in Afghanistan are expected to be accompanied by men at all times, limiting their movements. Securing acceptance will involve understanding how women will be allowed to act under the new regime and ensuring that this is followed closely, something that will be hard for most NGOs to swallow.
The current news cycle is dominated by images of Western organizations fleeing the country. This validates the view of many Afghans that Western NGOs were the tools of the U.S. military. The organizations that remain will face a challenging route to securing acceptance; however, if successful they could lay vital roots in an increasingly fragile country.