Lessons Learnt from Humanitarian Negotiations with the Taliban, 1996-2001

Published on 26 October 2021

As the Taliban take control of Afghanistan once again, questions are being raised about the possible curtailment of women’s access to humanitarian support.

Between 1996 and 2001, the Taliban implemented discriminatory policies starkly at odds with humanitarian principles. While much has changed since then, we may be able to draw cautious lessons from the efforts of humanitarians to navigate obstacles to impartial aid.
K4D recently undertook a rapid review of the literature on this topic, including humanitarian agency reports, evaluations and academic articles, and consulted leading experts on the issue. This included reports that were published between 1996 and 2001.

The main lessons that can be taken from the review of key incidents, themes and perspectives were:

1. Skills and training

Not all humanitarian actors had a systematic approach to negotiations, and the role of Afghan staff was undeveloped. A more deliberate strategy would have involved the prioritisation of objectives, and the separation of ultimate aims from negotiating positions. It would have been useful to understand the local political economy, Taliban ideology, as well as their leadership and negotiation styles. Given the high levels of mistrust, some authors point to the possibility of cultivating ‘good’ rather than ‘friendly’ relations, based on ‘integrity, openness and respect’ rather than shared beliefs.

2. Taliban ideology

Several commentators emphasise that Taliban ideology was fundamentally divergent from humanitarian principles, meaning agreement might never be reached on some points. Others highlight the potential for discussion of humanitarian principles, or for Islamic interlocutors to help broaden the Taliban’s views on issues like gender.
An important point to consider is that the Taliban’s policies were motivated by self-interest as much as ideology. Restricting women’s ability to work gave the Taliban control over who got jobs. Laws restricting the rights of women or the role of charities were a way to emphasise their power over the country. This insight suggests there are other ways to influence Taliban authorities than seeking to persuade them to change their views.

3. Understanding Taliban structures and motives

The Taliban command structure was hard to work with. Seniority was found to be no guarantee of influence, and Taliban officials would frequently contradict each other’s positions. Some aid actors sought to secure written agreements with the Taliban, but these were often ignored.

Diplomatic recognition by Western states was a powerful incentive for the Taliban. While aid agencies could not provide this recognition, it was seen to be linked to having a good relationship with agencies. Indeed, some argue that the Taliban hardened its stance towards aid actors following failure to get UN recognition and the implementation of sanctions.

Some humanitarians focused on low-level co-operation, or bypassing authority figures. Other aid agencies tried exploiting differing views, benefiting from more flexible ‘unofficial’ positions within the Taliban. However, such strategies did not necessarily benefit the broader ‘humanitarian space’ and principled aid. Many humanitarian actors did persist in seeking to run programmes, with the idea that there were moderate figures within the Taliban or among the Afghan civil servants.

4. Understanding local culture and communities

One strategy used by humanitarians was to work directly with communities and try and by-pass Taliban authorities. Aside from the problem of the risk this may place on communities, parts of Afghan society shared patriarchal norms with the Taliban.

When working with communities, it is crucial to understand the local cultures, as Taliban ideology is not synonymous with Afghan, Pashtun, Hazara, rural, urban cultures, or other identities or regions. This does not mean that humanitarians should accept discriminatory restrictions suggested by leaders or sections of society. Instead, that they should consider local conditions as well as targets set by international organisations.

5. Principles and flexibility

While humanitarians agree that aid should be impartial, they often have different views on what constitutes an impartial policy. Some humanitarian actors called for policies that were deemed to be unrealistic, or broad and hard to measure.

Humanitarian actors could have developed a better understanding of the principles and how they translate to policy objectives. Principle indicators are one way of achieving this and could have provided a good basis from which to negotiate.

During the period of Taliban rule, ICRC adapted programming. This required difficult decisions; one compromise, reached after months of negotiation, was gender segregated hospitals. This allowed ICRC to continue to provide as much assistance as possible. Crucially, ICRC’s willingness to adapt was combined with a constant assertion of ‘red lines’, namely the violation of international humanitarian law or ICRC’s principles.

6. Denunciation versus quiet diplomacy

In many cases, open denunciation of the Taliban was found to inflame tensions and harden positions. Many authors reflecting on this period criticise ‘feel good’ public statements which only heightened tensions and made agreements harder.

However, public denunciation was an effective tool in some situations. Media interviews and public statements by the UN Secretary General may have helped force the Taliban to grant humanitarian access to the Hazara minority.

Overall, discreet diplomacy was often found to be more effective. Sustained, behind-the-scenes dialogue with Taliban officials led to tangible results, such as the suspension of an edict that foreign female Muslim staff needed a male relative to escort them.

It should not be forgotten that some humanitarian needs are the direct product of persecution. Identifying this persecution is an important part of protecting the population.

7. Humanitarian coordination

Efforts were made to implement principled common programming whereby aid agencies would present a unified voice to the Taliban. The aim of coordination was to create shared positions so the Taliban could not play aid agencies off against each other. This also allowed agencies to share information about how agreements were being implemented. Although agencies sometimes struggled to work within the framework, coordination still increased humanitarian bargaining power.

The value of linking humanitarian and political aims is more disputed. The Strategic Framework for Afghanistan was an agreement intended to bring coherence between political and humanitarian aspects of UN work and to end conflict in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban were able to distinguish between different parts of the UN, which weakened the coherence of the approach. Moreover, humanitarians have also criticised such mechanisms as a politicisation of aid that compromises humanitarian neutrality and independence.

Summarising the lessons learnt

Humanitarian organisations used various strategies to negotiate with the Taliban. One that had little success was the public denunciation of Taliban policies. By contrast, persistent, considered dialogue was found to bring better results. Joint principled positions among humanitarian actors strengthened negotiating power, as did analysis of how the Taliban might respond. And while no one suggests that humanitarians abandon principles, the experiences of the period show that they should think carefully about which objectives to prioritise, and what an acceptable compromise might be.

By Luke Kelly – Read the full report here.

Key contacts

Ben O’Donovan-Iland

Communications and Impact Officer


About this news item


Related content