UN bakeries in doubt after talks break down

Four days of intensive talks between the UN and the Taliban in the Afghan capital, Kabul, this week broke up without reaching agreement on the crucial issue of using women to conduct a survey of the capital’s most vulnerable people. The ensuing stalemate could result in the closure of the UN’s bakeries, which feed almost 300,000 people in Kabul, and ultimately puts the fate of the UN’s other humanitarian programmes in the balance.

“We are back to square one,” UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan Erick de Mul said on Wednesday, referring to an announcement by the World Food Programme (WFP) on 25 May that it would have to suspend its bakery programme by 15 June unless the Taliban allowed a survey to be conducted to identify the capital’s “most needy”. The current list of approved recipients of the bakery project is outdated and the UN claims many hungry people are having to do without. WFP says it needs to hire between 20 and 30 Afghan women to conduct the survey, but the Taliban refuse to allow the UN to hire local women.

In a meeting this week with a nine-member UN team led by de Mul, the Taliban foreign minister, Mowlawi Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, suggested that if the five-year-old bakeries were forced to close, the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) authorities could take over the running of the programme, an option which was applauded by de Mul. “It would be fantastic if the Taliban authorities would start taking care of their own people and start to feed them. It would also help in diverting some of the money that is now being spent on the war to feeding people,” de Mul said. The Taliban also mooted two alternative options. The first was to hire men to conduct the survey, in spite of the fact that, under Islamic Emirate rules, men cannot talk to women. The second option was to hire women of Pakistani, Tajik or Iranian nationality. The UN opposed both proposals.

The deadlock comes amid what the UN calls a “narrowing of the space available for relief agencies to operate effectively in Afghanistan”.
De Mul said he had expressed serious concern during the meetings with Taliban ministers over what he called harassment from “guests” - an increasing number of visitors to Afghanistan from the Gulf and other countries who had been directing abuse and sometimes death threats at aid workers and UN staff. The cases had escalated to such a degree that international staff were no longer able to walk freely, and had resorted to travelling in vehicles to avoid such incidents. Equally, the conduct of the Taliban’s religious police from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice had become increasingly hardline, engaging in indiscriminate arrests. According to de Mul, the Taliban foreign minister had taken up the issue “very seriously”, and promised to do something about it. In the meantime, aid workers had been advised to “keep a low profile”.

“We have come to the point where it is clear that we cannot go on as we have been, muddling on for the last year and a half, where we have been bending backwards every time when there was a problem, and trying to be accommodating in order to continue to help the Afghan people,” de Mul said.
In spite of these efforts, the operating space for the UN and aid agencies was narrowing further. “We have to make it very clear: these are the conditions under which we can operate, and if that is not acceptable, then, unfortunately, we will have to close down, or stop or suspend programmes,” he said.

Whereas the WFP bakeries could be the immediate casualty, de Mul did not rule out the risk of other UN humanitarian programmes also closing. “We will have to see how things are moving. If the trend continues that we have been seeing over the last half year, and especially the last month, of increased harassment and obstacles, we will have no choice.”

Meanwhile, the UN mission did succeed in reaching agreement with the Taliban on a number of other “basic operational requirements”, including the need for free and unhindered access for aid workers, security of staff, the ability to independently assess and monitor programmes, and the need for such programmes to be based on “universality, impartiality and neutrality”.

De Mul, said the ball was now in the Taliban’s court and that they should “come to terms with reality and start accepting that the UN and NGOs were bound by certain basic principles set by the international community”.

However, he still held out hope that a solution could be found to break the deadlock before the 15 June deadline set by WFP to close the bakeries. “I had a slight hope that we would get a bit more than we got. My feeling is there was a very genuine interest on the part of the authorities to try and find a solution, but it got stuck on the issue of women.”