Five Reasons Why I'm Not Neutral
As the Taliban now run shadow governments in all but one of Afghanistan’s provinces (the Panjshir) amounting to a government-in-waiting, and one by one NATO governments announce their withdrawal dates, there is a glum resolve here among many aid workers that one day very soon the government we may be dealing with in Kabul will be a Taliban one. And so some are starting to seek engagement with the Taliban now, hoping they might be more accommodating than the miserable years of 1996-2001, when the overwhelming majority of organizations fled, and those who stayed, worked within bizarre and frustrating restrictions, many of which barred aid to women and girls. Overall, the restrictions and the fickle and unpredictable behaviour of the host government then meant aid simply could not reach all of the most vulnerable, and many lives were lost as a result.
With the possibility that the Taliban will return to power in whole or in part, humanitarian and social justice organizations are being counseled in some cases to be “neutral” towards the Taliban.
Here is why neutrality on the part of aid workers and aid organizations is impossible:
1. Neutrality is the approach argued for in order to preserve the ability to deliver aid in Taliban-held territory, without endangering the aid beneficiaries and aid workers. The problem with this argument is that the Taliban kill beneficiaries and aid workers anyways. Three days ago, they beheaded two Afghan women in Helmand province who ran micro-finance programs for women. On a weekly basis, Taliban kidnap Afghans who work for both national and international NGOs. They regularly assassinate nationals who run aid programs, work as drivers or guards for aid organizations, and set up illegal check points on highways across this country where they search for Afghans who have English names in their mobiles’ address books or documents identifying them as affiliated to NGOs or to any foreigners. They pull these individuals aside from the line-up of cars, or from the passengers on a bus, and they shoot them, sometimes with their family members looking on. The majority of the Afghan victims of the Taliban are not affiliated to NATO and have done nothing to cause the Taliban to believe they are parties to the conflict. They are perceived as enemies simply for delivering aid, because that aid is rendered possible by the NATO presence here, and their overall aim is to destabilize Afghanistan.
2. The Taliban’s ideology promotes the murder of “infidels”, meaning non-Muslims. It does not matter if the infidels are working for NATO, the Afghan Government, or for an organization that has nothing to do with either: they are considered fair targets. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if they are Muslims too, even Muslim converts sympathetic to them! In 2008, the Taliban kidnapped and have now likely murdered Canadian Khadija Abdul Qahaar (formerly Beverley Giesbrecht), whose website, jihadunspun.com, was criticized by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies for being “a Canadian pro-terrorist website.” The Taliban called Qahaar’s friends in Canada seeking money, to secure her release. Similarly, the Taliban regularly rob and pillage the offices of aid organizations and convoys of aid supplies. It would seem their motivations are those other than purely submission to Allah and defense of their country from “infidels”, but simply the pursuit of old-fashioned greed and exploitation.
Two Canadian aid workers, Jacqueline Kirk and Shirley Case, from the completely independent international humanitarian organization, the International Rescue Committee, were murdered along with another international and their Afghan driver in August 2008 by Taliban in Logar province. Following the attack, the IRC temporarily suspended its aid program. In October 2008, a South African woman, Gayle Williams, was shot in Kabul. She was a volunteer, on her way to work in Kabul, where she helped Afghans with disabilities. In August 2010, 10 medical aid workers were murdered in Nooristan province. The Taliban’s spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid said they were killed for "spying for the Americans" and "preaching Christianity." They were doing neither. In fact, the organization the 10 worked for had been peacefully and independently delivering aid to Afghans since 1966, and the organization stated it no longer knew whether it could continue to do so following the murders. Every year in Afghanistan, there are more stories like this.
3. The parties to the conflict in Afghanistan are not created equal. One, the Taliban, deliberately targets independent aid workers and any and all foreigners. The other, NATO, does not. It’s really hard to be “neutral” towards a group that wants to kill you, and will always want to kill you.
4. When it comes to Islamo-fascist terrorism, I want to be clear with myself where I stand. There is only one side that history will forgive, and it’s not the side of the Taliban nor the side of passivity. The Taliban kill, and when it comes to life-and-death matters, one should know where they stand.
The Taliban, along with other insurgent groups like the Haqqani Network and Hezb-i-Islami, are akin to modern-day Nazism. They are, fundamentally, fascist terrorist groups. It’s difficult to imagine any modern-day aid organization which, knowing the history that we know now, would today claim to be “neutral” towards Hitler or Stalin, or other European fascist movements of the past. If only our historical memory could stretch into insight into the present.
“Insurgents” is a convenient catchall phrase for these actors, but it is a euphemism that ultimately fails to communicate the danger of the ideology these groups espouse. It’s an ideology to which I don’t want to be neutral towards, and I don’t think any aid organization or aid worker, in good conscience, can be neutral towards. The Taliban are, simply, antithetical to the purpose of aid organizations. Neutrality is far too close to tolerance. As Sally Armstrong has said, “there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.”
5. Aid organizations have mandates to serve their beneficiaries. Serving your beneficiaries means working in their best interests, which necessitates consideration of both the short-term and long-term impacts of the organizations’ actions and decisions. Engaging with, or being neutral, towards the Taliban today might allow some organizations to deliver aid over the short term. But in the long-term, failing to speak against the Taliban, or working with them as a legitimate governing force might contribute to the consolidation of their regime. Is a Taliban government ultimately in the best interests of the Afghans whom aid organizations are seeking to serve? Clearly, its not.
Lauryn Oates is a contributing writer to The Propagandist, and is currently writing from Kabul.