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In Afghanistan, aid groups wrestle with the new reality of Taliban control

‘We have been caught out.’

A Taliban member stands outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 16 August 2021. The speed of the Taliban’s advance on the capital took aid agencies by surprise.
A Taliban member stands outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on 16 August 2021. The speed of the Taliban’s advance on the capital took aid agencies by surprise. (REUTERS)

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Fear, uncertainty, and ethical dilemmas on the horizon – aid groups in Afghanistan are struggling to understand a vastly changed landscape following the stunning collapse of the international donor-backed government.

On Monday, the first full day after the Taliban swept into Kabul and cemented its control, international aid agencies were waiting to restart operations in a country already locked in multiple humanitarian crises.

Several larger humanitarian groups say they have a mandate to continue emergency aid. But the scope of what that would look like is uncertain – dependent on fraught negotiations with the Taliban, and clouded by the potential for tighter restrictions and threats to Afghan staff.

Common Taliban positions in the past have included: refusing to allow female aid staff, choosing where and to whom aid goes, and demanding payments or “taxation” for access.

Aid workers say they expect these demands to continue, but an overarching Taliban policy on aid is still unclear.

“There doesn’t appear to be very clear lines from the leadership about what exactly the policies are and should be, and how the new government structures should actually work,” said one aid worker with a humanitarian NGO, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely.

Afghanistan’s upheaval comes as long-standing emergencies simmer – from mass displacement, to a severe drought, and another COVID-19 wave. These needs have all been magnified during the Taliban’s recent military surge: Tens of thousands more people have fled their homes, many displaced are gathered in Kabul, and there are fears for the treatment of women, minorities, and others persecuted under previous Taliban rule. 

Here’s a look at what has happened within the aid sector as the Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan, and what may be on the horizon in the coming days:

Caught by surprise

As with many in Afghanistan, aid groups were shocked by the speed at which government authorities collapsed.

In a little over a week, the Taliban swept through the majority of the country’s provincial centres before reaching the capital, Kabul, on Sunday.

“I don’t think we were prepared for the entire country to fall around the same time,” said an aid worker at an international NGO.

A July security assessment, used by aid agencies and seen by The New Humanitarian, predicted a stalemate, suggesting that the Taliban might not be able to take and hold provincial capitals. For weeks before this, the Taliban were quickly overrunning sparse rural districts nominally controlled by the government.

“When the first districts started to fall, we didn’t necessarily take that as an indicator that the situation was changing as rapidly as it was.”

“When the first districts started to fall, we didn’t necessarily take that as an indicator that the situation was changing as rapidly as it was,” said the aid worker at the humanitarian NGO.

These assumptions were jolted by the time the Taliban seized the major cities of Herat and Kandahar late last week. Overnight, several aid agencies rushed plans to evacuate international workers, though some expatriate staff still remain. Just days earlier, some NGOs had been considering much smaller reductions. 

“None of us expected this to happen this quickly,” the humanitarian NGO worker said. “We have been caught out.”

To stay and deliver?

Throughout the conflict, the message from the UN and humanitarian agencies has been to “stay and deliver” – a common refrain on maintaining aid in dangerous environments. 

The aid worker said their humanitarian NGO had suspended most operations by Monday but was hoping to restart emergency relief when it is safe.

“Our immediate priority are the huge humanitarian needs,” they said, noting that the future of more development-focused projects was more uncertain.

A UNICEF spokesperson told the BBC that the agency hoped to restart operations within days. Médecins Sans Frontières and Emergency, an Italian NGO, said their medical operations in parts of the country were still running. 

Red lines: Negotiating with the Taliban

Before the Taliban takeover, humanitarian agencies regularly worked in disputed or Taliban-controlled territories. Staff safety and independence hinges on often-sensitive negotiations with Taliban officials assigned to liaise with aid groups.

As of Monday, those negotiations hadn’t begun in Kabul, said the aid worker: “We would just be waiting for [the Taliban’s] NGO representative to reach out to us. We’re not sure who that is at present.”

In other parts of Afghanistan, Taliban officials contacted NGOs soon after territories changed hands.

“They approached us. They went to our office, and asked us what kind of organisation we are,” said a senior official at another NGO, which had suspended its programmes in northern Afghanistan.

Generally, aid groups believe the Taliban are keen to get some types of emergency operations underway. But this varies depending on the location and the severity of clashes before the Taliban took control. 

“They approached us. They went to our office, and asked us what kind of organisation we are.”

In some areas, ground-level Taliban officials are familiar with humanitarian groups and have already asked that operations continue, aid workers said. Elsewhere, fighters have commandeered schools or NGO offices, particularly in places where clashes with Afghan security forces were more fierce.

“There are a lot of fighters that don’t come from the areas in which we work,” said another senior NGO official, again speaking on condition of anonymity. “Their priority is not necessarily the communities in which they’re fighting.”

It’s also unclear whether the Taliban will take a harder line with aid groups, imposing restrictions – especially on women – that may breach humanitarian principles. 

The burden on Afghan aid workers

As in any humanitarian response to crises, local staff face the most pressure. For the Afghans who comprise the vast majority of aid staff, this means working on an emergency while their lives and country are in turmoil.

Many Afghans have tried to leave; aid workers are no exception, though options are scarce.

The senior official at the NGO working in northern Afghanistan said half of the organisation’s staff in two provinces fled to the closest city when the Taliban took control. 

Aid officials said many staff have asked for documents and help to apply for resettlement programmes geared towards Afghans whose work was connected to the US government, or employed by media or NGOs headquartered in the United States. However, the resettlement scheme demands people apply from a third country, at a time when international borders are mostly shut.

“I’m pretty confident we can make sure that our staff are not targeted as a result of working for an NGO... The issue is staff that might have other reasons to be afraid of the Taliban.”

“People talk about leaving, people talk about wanting to go to Europe, but all the borders are closed,” said the senior NGO official.

Aid agencies say they’re trying to protect staff who remain. At one international NGO, Afghan aid workers have received months of salary payments in advance. Others are emphasising policies that allow staff to refuse assignments if they don’t feel safe. 

Still, options are extremely limited. There are reports of reprisals and executions in areas the Taliban recently seized, as well as sharp restrictions on women in particular. 

“I’m pretty confident we can make sure that our staff are not targeted as a result of working for an NGO,” said the aid worker at the humanitarian agency. “The issue is staff that might have other reasons to be afraid of the Taliban. Did they cooperate or have some kind of role with [the international] military? Do they come from a particular tribe which is being targeted? Many people are very afraid. There is a limited amount that anyone can do in that situation.”

Existing crises

The Taliban resurgence has squeezed a country already facing overlapping emergencies.

Conflict in 2021 has displaced hundreds of thousands of Afghans – many in recent weeks. But it’s not all one-way traffic. While many Afghans make exit plans, record numbers – at least 700,000 this year – have been pushed home from neighbouring Iran

A severe drought has spurred warnings of widespread hunger. And a coronavirus third wave, fuelled by the infectious Delta variant, has ransacked an already bare-bones health system.

“There’s a lot of focus on Afghanistan right now, and that is very well warranted,” said the aid worker at the international NGO. “But we were in a massive humanitarian crisis even before… so the starting point for so many people across the country was extremely dire.”

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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