Cozying Up to the Taliban

In recent months, humanitarian groups in Afghanistan have begun to cooperate much more closely with the Taliban to deliver their services. Is that a bad thing?

KABUL—It was a shock to everyone when 10 aid workers were killed in Afghanistan's remote Badakshan Province earlier this month. The Taliban claimed responsibility, reporters catalogued the victims' work, and expats across the country felt a shiver. But what surprised the humanitarian groups here most was that it happened at a time when all other signs were pointing in the opposite direction: Recent months have seen increasing cooperation between the Taliban and humanitarian groups and fewer targeted killings of aid workers.

Humanitarian groups have always had to strike a delicate balance of distance and cooperation with the Taliban. Aid workers provide services in territory under militant control -- which is a fair amount of Afghanistan these days. Recently, however, that cooperation has grown even closer and more explicit; aid groups have held meetings with the Taliban to negotiate for their safety, even producing a written document of permission from the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, in one case.

Aid workers' safety has generally improved through the shield of agreements and understandings, even if the recent slaughter shows cracks in the armor. As Nic Lee, director of the Afghan NGO Safety Office, an organization that advises aid groups on security, told me, "There's not a [militant] campaign against NGOs." If anything, humanitarian groups are getting cozier with the Taliban.

The reason for the cooperation is to keep aid workers and their services safe, says Laurent Saillard, director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief. It's an uphill battle, he told me, with national NGO staff are kidnapped at a rate of "10, 15, 20 people" per week. "So you can guess [that] there are a lot of NGOs in contact with the Taliban," he said. The Taliban has largely opened the door to NGOs; whereas insurgents from abroad, including Iran, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia, and Uzbekistan have a "reputation [of being] much tougher when it comes to foreigners."

Well-known humanitarian groups such as Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) have all negotiated for their protection. And recently, the relative strength and organization of the Taliban has made it an easier task. Michiel Hofman, the organization's country representative, met face to face with Taliban commanders in the chain of command between March and May 2009 in order to re-establish the organization's presence in Afghanistan, he told me in an interview. MSF had pulled out of Afghanistan after five of its own employees were murdered in 2004. "The [Taliban] chain of command is more coherent in 2010 than 2004. It was much more fragmented then. That's why it's easier to establish these agreements." What exactly the agreement says is confidential, but what's clear is that MSF now has access to operate in Taliban controlled areas so long as its employees are clearly differentiated from NATO troops. Today, all MSF workers wear clearly marked vests with the group's insignia, front and back.

Equally strange bedfellows are now working in southern and eastern Afghanistan on a polio vaccination campaign. The effort is led by Unicef and the World Health Organization -- with the cooperation of both the Taliban and President Hamid Karzai's central government. For much of recent memory, Afghanistan was a country where polio vaccination was seen by clerics as a conspiracy to poison or sterilize Muslim children. Now, volunteers carry a letter of approval with Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, as a signatory, the Wall Street Journal reported last January. The International Committee of the Red Cross acted as a go-between to negotiate, its spokesman, Bijan Frederic Farnoudi told me. The Journal story makes clear that the collaboration runs deep: "Red Cross workers coordinate with the Taliban almost daily their movement through insurgent-dominated areas. And the organization has established channels of communication that allow it to receive responses on requests sent to the Taliban's senior leadership within hours."

The International Assistance Mission (IAM), the organization whose workers were killed last week, has taken a different approach, negotiating mainly with local authorities and village elders, says director Dirk Frans. The IAM has been in Afghanistan since 1966, and the group has honed its strategy over the years. "When mujahedeen were fighting over Kabul [in the 1990s,] part of the town with the eye hospital was under one commander, but [hospital] staff lived under another commander. The mujahedeen agreed that, for a certain part of the day, there would be no fighting so that we could go from one section of town to another," recalled Frans. "We worked here when the king was in power, and when the Russians were in power ... then the mujahedeen, then the Taliban. Whoever is in control, that's [who] we relate to." What went wrong in Badakshan Province wasn't the IAM's local strategy; it was a local change of power. The area fell from NATO to Taliban control in late July, and it was right around that time that the aid workers showed up. With a new boss in town and old alliances in freefall, "They were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Yet long before the recent tragedy, not everyone was pleased with the working relationship between aid groups and the Taliban. The quandary is the same one hashed out in conflict zones the world over: Aid organizations strive to remain neutral, believing that their ability to deliver help will depend upon their ability to avoid being seen as partisan in any way. And that means talking to everyone, even the worst of the worst.

In April 2010, the Karzai administration offered its clearest indication yet that it wasn't so fond of the arrangement. The government charged against a handful of Italian and Afghan employees of the Italian aid organization Emergency, which ran a hospital in Helmand, with carrying out "terrorist activities," killing civilians in its hospitals, and plotting to assassinate the governor. The charges have since been dropped, but some suspected the real reason for the case was something else entirely. In 2007, the group negotiated a deal with the Taliban for the release of a foreign journalist. The reporter's Afghan translator was killed.

The international coalition isn't thrilled with the agreements, either. The U.S. military and the German military, for example, have put conditions on grants that they offer to aid organizations, requiring them to work closely with the troops. The Catholic aid organization Caritas recently refused to cooperate with the German army's reconstruction efforts precisely because of those conditions, even though it could have won a piece of more than $12.9 million worth of aid.

Caritas and other aid groups have expressed concern that associating too closely with the international forces' attempts to "win hearts and minds" will put them in the same category as the military -- partisan and insecure. Already, aid groups have to fight to differentiate themselves from foreign troops. "When I speak to the Taliban I explain that I also meet with the U.S. military command and vice versa," Hofman explained. "Nobody is opposed to $4 million of medicine carried into their territory. But when you say you need expatriate staff monitoring it all the way to the patient... it can be difficult to convince the local commander that these are different foreigners [from the troops]."

Among hundreds of NGOs operating in Afghanistan, most negotiation with the Taliban is informal and indirect, "not at a high level with high-ranking Taliban," Saillard said. "It doesn't work all the time. But when it works, it's because the NGO has a good reputation, and the community supports the work."

If anything the IAM massacre will simply draw aid workers and the Taliban closer together. Aid groups here are drawing the lesson that communication with insurgents must be local and continuous. That will mean more agreements, more discussions, and more communication, not less. "Things rapidly change on the ground." said Frans. "You think you have an agreement, but things change."



Gaza's Great Tunnel Recession

Battered by Israeli and Egyptian military strikes and undermined by the easing of the blockade on Gaza, the once-booming tunnel industry is a shadow of its former self.

RAFAH, Gaza—It's a clear sign that an industry is well established when cafes spring up to cater to the workforce. In the best of times, Café Abou el Nour relied on just this business model, supplying a place to rest and talk for the busy workers in Gaza's tunnel industry. The smuggling zone extends across both sides of the border separating Egypt and Gaza, and is split down the middle by a low Egyptian border fence outfitted with manned guard towers several hundred meters apart.

Once, there were more than a thousand tunnels on this patch of land. These days, however, squeezed by the Egyptian and Israeli governments and the easing of the Gaza blockade, the tunnels have dwindled to as few as 200, according to tunnel workers. Café Abou el Nour also sits empty, save for a 10-year-old worker snoozing in the corner, a few stray cats looking for a handout, and the establishment's preoccupied owner, Ahmed Abou el Nour. "There is no work these days," he says, "because the tunnel business has been very bad."

Khaled Baraka, a 20-year-old native of Rafah, was one of the workers who benefited during the tunnels' boom time, which began in 2007 following Hamas's armed takeover of the Gaza Strip. Neither the Israelis nor the Egyptians had cracked down on the industry yet, and the Israeli blockade imposed after Hamas seized power guaranteed that the tunnels would be Gazans' primary lifeline for basic necessities.

Hamas nurtured the tunnel industry and continues to view it as an important source of revenue. The party issues licenses for the tunnels, charging Gazans up to $6,000 for the privilege of beginning construction. It then taxes each tunnel $200 per month, according to Baraka and another tunnel worker. In return for these fees, the municipality of Rafah oversees the tunnel trade -- helping to resolve disputes between tunnel owners, imposing labor laws, and providing emergency rescue support in the event of a collapse.

When Baraka began his career in the tunnels as a digger, he was working three or four days a week and making up to $200 per day. While the volume of goods passing through the tunnels made the industry seductively lucrative to Gazans, workers lived in fear of tunnel collapses, Israeli airstrikes, and Egyptian military raids. He quickly rose to the position of tunnel manager, overseeing workers in a tunnel. In the middle of 2009, he purchased a 20 percent stake in the tunnel, paying for his portion largely in labor.

But the industry had already begun its decline. After its nearly monthlong war with Hamas concluded in January 2009, Israel managed to convince Egypt that the success of its strategy to isolate Hamas depended on Egyptian help in shutting down the Islamist party's primary source of goods and weapons. In response, Egypt ramped up its efforts: Over the last year and a half, workers say, Egypt has been responsible for far more tunnel closures than the Israeli air raids.

The visual contrast between the Egyptian side of the tunnel industry and its counterpart in Gaza attests to the firm hand Egypt keeps on the smugglers. While the Gaza side of the industry operates openly, the Egyptian tunnels operate in secrecy, opening into houses or remote fields.

According to some in Gaza, however, Egypt has shown restraint. "The Egyptians are very smart," said Ahmed Yousef, a political advisor to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. If they chose, "They could close all the tunnels tomorrow." While Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is a staunch U.S. ally and adheres to a peace treaty with Israel, he also does not want to provoke anger throughout the Arab world, and at home, by entirely cutting off Gaza's economic lifeline. Protesters throughout the Arab world earlier this year railed against the Egyptian government's construction of an underground steel wall meant to thwart the smugglers, which Hamas dubbed the "wall of death."

Since then, Gaza's tunnel economy has only declined further. In the wake of the May 31 Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, which left nine Turkish activists dead and created a worldwide backlash against the blockades, Israel replaced the limited list of goods that were allowed into Gaza with a small list of items that it insisted should still be excluded. As a result, many Palestinians quickly turned their backs on the tunnels, choosing to buy cheaper, higher-quality products from Israel.

In fact, though Hamas continues to support the tunnel trade and its implied defiance of Israeli policy, many Palestinians are desperate to see the industry fall into obsolescence. Tunnel goods are dramatically more expensive than Israeli products, a particularly important consideration in a territory where money is tight and the unemployment rate tops 40 percent.

Cement, one of the few items that Israel still forbids from entering Gaza, sells at more than a 100 percent markup after it passes through the tunnels. On the Egyptian side of the border, it costs nearly $100 a ton -- but then it passes through the hands of tunnel owners, wholesale merchants, and store owners, all looking to make a profit. By the time it reaches consumers in Gaza, the price has shot up to around $220 per ton.

For Gazan consumers, caught between buying goods brought to Gaza illegally and those allowed in by the Israeli enemy, quality is also an important consideration. "If the borders open for good, I will never, ever buy goods from Egypt again," said Mohamed Abou Matar, a shop owner in Rafah, as he sipped a cup of Israeli coffee. He had a particular gripe with Egyptian cigarettes, which are notoriously bad. His customers, he said, craved cigarettes from Israel.

Baraka was one of the victims of the tunnel industry's change of fortunes. The Israeli air force bombed his tunnel in January, caving in a middle portion. Baraka decided that he would not invest in repairs, effectively handing in his retirement from the industry. "I quit working in the tunnels because I lost too many friends," he said. He was also discouraged by the Egyptian government's renewed anti-tunnel efforts, fearing that Egypt would pump poison gas into his tunnel. Now, he has joined his brothers in the more modest, but far safer, business of buying and selling charcoal.

With the tunnel industry on the wane, the strip of land along the Egyptian border is far quieter than even a year and a half ago. The bustle of the area has disappeared with the stream of goods. However, there are some signs that the tunnel business is not dying, but merely in a state of suspended animation -- waiting for the political winds to produce conditions favorable for a revival.

On one recent afternoon, Ibrahim Abou Taha, 17, lounged in the shade of his tunnel's tent. Nothing had come through the tunnel for days, he said, but he liked to stay close to the entrance so as not to risk losing his job.

Asked if crackdowns by the Egyptians and the Israelis had made him worry for his safety and if he would consider abandoning the tunnel trade, as so many others had, Abou Taha shook his head. "All of us will be dead someday," he said, several minutes after the roar of an Israeli jet had faded.

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