Negotiation and Afghanistan


Article originally published on Reliefweb. Full text is also below.

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The practice of negotiation alongside humanitarian programmes is more pertinent than ever at the moment, as humanitarian space is at stake. Recognition of human rights and access to basic aid and services are not recognised by governments with repressive regimes and militia groups the world over. Anti-terrorist legislations might even restrain the opportunity for humanitarian organisations to negotiate with some non-state armed groups. In 2020 there were 34 conflicts worldwide, with armed groups fighting for territory, rich natural resources and governing power. The most obvious example at the moment is Afghanistan. Its population has watched on while Western military forces withdrew, along with government representatives as one after the other closed their embassies and international staff were repatriated. This left a handful of humanitarian organisations, risking their safety, to continue humanitarian programmes within the country where possible.

These few humanitarian organisations that remain face a complicated situation. How do they negotiate with the de facto Taliban government, to try and ensure their life-saving food, health, education and shelter programmes can continue, especially as another harsh winter is fast approaching? How can these organisations ensure that while negotiating these programmes they do not make concessions detrimental to the rights of the Afghan population? For instance, by accepting to operate without female staff.

Two such organisations are the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Neither are strangers to negotiation with military groups or repressive governments. However, each situation is unique, and the Taliban have not been in control for over two decades, so the rules of engagement and the negotiation paths are fraught with confusion.

In a recent interview while visiting Afghanistan, the President of ICRC, Peter Maurer, expressed hope that negotiation would be successful and humanitarian programmes would be allowed to continue. He met with the Taliban regime’s health minister, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and reported back that “We’ll have to see how it evolves, but it was a good interview’’. The ICRC does have an advantage in that it has maintained a dialogue with the Taliban over the last three decades through several phases in Afghanistan’s recent history. Going forwards, the ICRC intends to focus its activities on health, drinking water and assistance to the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan. Maurer underlined their commitment to stay, saying ‘’ICRC is dedicated to staying here to help that recovery. The future of all Afghans relies on the continued compassion, empathy and investment from the outside world.’’

MSF are also doing all they can to keep their programmes running. In the city of Herat they have medical facilities for trauma and covid-19 patients. However, one of the main worries is that other health facilities in the city will close down soon as funds from the World Health Organisation and other funding mechanisms have stopped since the Taliban took control.

Collaboration between organisations will also be key to successfully negotiating access to the populations in need. There are examples of this already with ICRC collaborating with various UN bodies including WHO, UNICEF and UNHCR. What is less clear however is if and how these bodies will collectively negotiate with the de facto Taliban government. The fact that the UN has a broader mandate than a humanitarian one questions how far should dunantist organisations such as MSF and ICRC adopt a joint approach with UN bodies.

Until 2004 negotiation was often considered a rude word in humanitarian circles, persuasion was preferred. Implicitly the humanitarians knew what they had to do and their counterparts had to adapt. Things started to change when in 2004 the first manual on Humanitarian Negotiation was published by the Centre of Humanitarian Dialogue, followed one year later by OCHA. Since then publications and research in this domain started being published. The present challenge is to integrate them into operational practice. Negotiation is now a recognised humanitarian expertise, that is taught by various organisations including the CCHN and the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies. There is a standard negotiation process called the Naivasha Grid. This is an iterative process that was developed with ICRC in 2014. The process works within the context of the organisation’s mission and strategic objectives, and also its institutional policies and red lines. Considering shared objectives, the aim is to then analyse the interests and motives of the counterpart, identify own priorities and objectives, analyse networks of influence, and design scenarios and identify bottom lines. From this, a tactical negotiation plan and engagement plan should be developed.

But what happens if the basic tenants of negotiation are not understood by all parties involved? What if parties hold differing perspectives about the concept of negotiation at the very basic level? The humanitarian sector is awash with different concepts, phrases and meanings. Even getting a convergence of opinion on the most basic concepts practised within humanitarian action, by humanitarian actors themselves is an ongoing challenge. The Humanitarian Encyclopedia project aims to create greater clarity across some 129 concepts used within the humanitarian sector. Concepts such as negotiation, protection, humanity and impartiality have been analysed, showing areas where there is consensus, but also plenty of divergence between actors on the meaning of these terms, and how to implement them. The initiative has been developed by humanitarian professionals and academics aware of the necessity of speaking the same clear language, sharing knowledge as a public good and co-producing new forms of knowledge to guide future humanitarian responses.

To foster deeper understandings of key concepts for humanitarian practitioners and researchers alike, the Humanitarian Encyclopedia project has developed an online platform and innovative methodology to analyse the way humanitarian actors use terminology in practice.  When it comes to the concept of humanitarian negotiation, the project’s researchers found two distinct but comparable definitions in the literature, which describe it as a type of humanitarian engagement that aims to achieve purely humanitarian objectives.

But while reaching consensus on a definition of humanitarian negotiation may be within reach, putting it into practice is replete with challenges and controversies. One example is the disconnect between what negotiation involves at the highest levels, such as those between international agencies and the Taliban in Afghanistan – and the daily negotiations that take place between local staff and armed actors on the front lines.  Another dilemma is that negotiating access can easily become political, potentially bringing a humanitarian organisation’s fundamental principles of independence and neutrality into question. In recent years, further challenges have arisen that complicate efforts to implement humanitarian negotiation according to theory and principles. For example, increased targeting of humanitarian organisations obliges them to protect themselves. At the same time, securitizing their operations blurs the distinction between humanitarians’ neutral role and the role of more political development, peace and security actors.

In this context, how will the Taliban government proceed? Will it see the international humanitarians as genuinely neutral and negotiate? Some experts believe yes because the Taliban is ‘war weary’ and wants to move forward. The Taliban are showing signs they want international support and are open to cooperation with existing humanitarian organisations within the country.

The Afghanistan population collectively holds its breadth, while they await the outcome of these negotiations. Their survival could hinge on it, as without successful negotiation many life-saving aid programmes will grind to a halt, with potentially catastrophic results.

Visit our latest Humanitarian Encyclopedia Newsletter which focuses on Negotiation.