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Why This Humanitarian NGO Leader Flew to Kabul to Meet with the Taliban

Ruling Taliban banned women from working at non-governmental organizations last month.

Without women workers, there can be no humanitarian aid in Afghanistan, says Jan Egeland.

Egeland is the secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that advocates for displaced people and provides education, food assistance, clean water, legal support and more.

But he says the group will no longer be able to offer its services in Afghanistan after the Taliban issued a decree barring women from working for domestic or international NGOs.

That’s why Egeland just spent a week in Kabul, meeting with Taliban officials and pressing them to reverse the decree. He is the first NGO chief to visit Afghanistan for talks with the Taliban since the ban came into effect more than two weeks ago.

He spoke to As It Happens host Nil Köksal about those talks, and why he still has hope for the future. Here is part of their conversation.

Have you made any headway in your talks with the Taliban so far?

We have at least been able to meet the Taliban at the highest levels here in Kabul. And we’ve been extremely blunt. We told the Taliban leadership that they have forced us to end all work temporarily across Afghanistan because they have banned all our female workers.

We cannot work without our female colleagues. We will not work without them. So this is an existential crisis for humanitarian work in a country where 23 million — more than half of the population — is in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

What did the Taliban leadership say in response?

The paradoxical thing is, of course, that they say to me that they agree with me. There should be education for women and girls. There should be no ban on female humanitarian workers or workers in non-governmental organizations. They agree with me that they broke, as an organization, their promises to us.

But this is a decree coming from their supreme leadership in Kandahar, which is now siding with the more extreme corners of the Taliban that are wanting to go back to those bleak days of the 1990s.

So where does this leave you now? Are they going to take your message back to the even higher levels? Is there any hope?

There is absolutely hope. I hear time and again that there is work on a [new] decree. The [most recent] decree basically came on Christmas Eve … banning all the female workers. Before that, there was the decree on banning education [at the] secondary and tertiary university level.

[I am told] there will be a new decree finding a solution to those problems, which would mean we can still have our female colleagues and even do education at the level that we want to.

The crucial issue is when will this come? I hope next week. But it could also take a year. And what will then happen in that year? 

I know you’re having other conversations with ambassadors from other countries. You’ve just emerged from a meeting with United Nations representatives. Can you tell me what you were discussing there, and if those other conversations can help you get to where you need to be?

I’m making a point now of trying to reach Kandahar, where the leadership sits. 

The Qatari embassy and the Turkish embassy have promised to help. They are well-connected in Afghanistan.

The UN is of one mind with us in the non-governmental organizations against this. The ban has not so far … affected them. It could in the future.

I hope to see a united front from the international community saying we cannot and we will not work without female colleagues. 

One of the reasons for that is, of course, that males cannot give direct assistance to females. That is according to Afghan traditions, long before the Taliban, which means that widows, single mothers, et cetera, will now be excluded. 

For us, it’s a fundamental value, which I’ve explained to the Taliban, that we have equality between the two sexes.

Do you think you will be able to visit the leadership in Kandahar?

I’m trying to…. We have lined up meetings with the Islamic leadership in Kandahar, where I will be equally blunt, equal to what I’ve been here in Kabul.

We have to win this. It’s a battle of values. We have to win it.

You mentioned the tens of millions of people in Afghanistan and a little bit of what they’re up against. But could you just tell me a little bit more about what the daily reality is for people, and the kinds of things they’re doing … to survive? 

It’s been steadily worsening, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. And it’s too bad that it comes completely in the shadow of the horrific war in Europe in Ukraine.

Canada, Norway, [the] U.S. and all of the other NATO countries left Afghanistan. You will remember that the soldiers and the development workers and the diplomats went for the door one-and-a-half years ago and left us, the humanitarians, behind with the civilian population of 40 million.

Is there any route you see where you would get that aid to the people who need it most, even if this decree isn’t lifted? 

If it’s not lifted, I cannot see how we can do principled, effective, efficient, monitored humanitarian work. So we will head into a tremendous crisis.

Which means, again, that I believe there will be a reversal of this. There will be a new decree that will enable our work. 

We’re working very hard on that. We need help, though. So I hope more countries will engage, more countries will push. Islamic countries should push. Neighbouring countries should push.

The women and children of Afghanistan deserve all the help they can get. Now, six million may fall into famine very soon. Twenty million people need food assistance. There are several million internally displaced. Still, there are large communities without a roof in the cold and the snow and the rain of the winter in Afghanistan’s mountains.

It couldn’t be bleaker really. But we are not giving up. 

We’ve heard some reports of some of the extreme measures people have to take there to survive within their families. Can you tell us anything about those kinds of things?

Extreme measures, indeed. There is more child marriage, [more] child brides. There is more human trafficking. There is more drugs. And more and more families become heavily indebted because they cannot afford life anymore. They do not have an income and they become indebted to others, which means ruins for the family for a long time to come.

I have argued for the assets of the Afghan National Bank that are frozen in Washington and elsewhere to be released. Of course, that should also come with the condition that girls can have education and that females can work in our organizations. 

But we would certainly have more leverage if the West chose to engage again and not just sit in the distance on a fence.

But does the leadership of the Taliban in Kandahar … really care what neighbouring countries and what Western countries say at this point?

I don’t know what the closest advisers to the emir and himself [think]. Nobody knows. But there is, of course, a lot of Taliban leaders that are acutely aware that they are in control now. They govern more than 40 million people. They do not want to see their people — their families, their relatives, their mothers and grandmothers and aunts and nephews — perish.

There is, today, an enormous pressure within the Taliban for a more rational and less extreme policy. 

With files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

Source: CBC