“Negotiating Survival” Book Symposium – Lessons and Questions for Humanitarian Access in Violent Contexts

About the author(s):

Jori Breslawski

Jori Breslawski is a lecturer in the Political Science Department at Tel Aviv University. Her research centers on governance by non-state armed groups and humanitarian access in violent contexts. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Maryland, College Park. Prior to joining TAU, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs at Brown University and an affiliated fellow at the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian studies.

Ashley Jackson’s extraordinary book, Negotiating Survival, is a fascinating dive into the complex interactions that characterize relationships between civilians and members of armed groups. In the last decade, understanding how armed groups interact with people under their influence has become a central topic in the study of civil war. While a growing body of research references negotiations between civilians and armed groups as central to observed outcomes, Jackson’s is one of the first to my knowledge that sheds light on what these negotiations actually look like. Drawing upon hundreds of interviews with civilians, aid workers, as well as Taliban fighters, commanders and leaders, her rich detail and storytelling unveils the creative strategies that civilians use to negotiate with armed groups. For these reasons, Negotiating Survival is a critical addition to the scholarship on civilian agency in war as well as the literature on governance by non-state armed groups.

Graveyard near Bala Hissar, an ancient fortress on the southern outskirts of Kabul, May 2010

In my eyes, one of the book’s greatest contributions is the insight it provides into how humanitarian access can be negotiated in violent contexts. Scholarly research on humanitarian access in civil war is relatively underdeveloped, at least in the field of political science, despite the fact that the negotiations that underpin access are inherently political. Like other topics studied in the context of civil war, researchers grapple with the challenges of collecting data in information-poor environments, seeking to analyze phenomena that take place in contexts in which individuals often have reasons to obscure their preferences and actions. However, Jackson overcomes these challenges. Throughout the book, her observations shed light on potential strategies that can be used to encourage armed groups to cooperate with humanitarian organizations delivering aid to civilians living in areas under the influence of armed groups. I highlight some of the lessons learned from the book in this regard, and then pose some questions that the book raises in relation to this topic. 

The first lesson is that civilians are central for negotiating and maintaining humanitarian access in areas under the influence of armed groups. Much of the existing scholarship on humanitarian access in civil war overlooks the role that aid recipients play—a surprising oversight given the growing literature that highlights armed groups’ dependence on civilians in war. Through a multitude of stories, Jackson reveals that aid recipients are often the reason that humanitarian organizations are able to operate in areas under the influence of armed groups. 

Jackson’s book demonstrates that both respected elders as well as normal citizens have negotiated humanitarian access with the Taliban. Her interviewees recount a litany of examples in which civilians were able to persuade the Taliban to allow humanitarian efforts, convincing the insurgents, for instance, to allow the construction and operation of girls’ schools, even though many members of the Taliban oppose such projects. While civilians have historically been assumed to lack agency in violent contexts, Jackson astutely details the sources from which they draw their leverage over armed groups. For elders, it is their customary legitimacy and usefulness to the Taliban. For civilians not in positions of power, they leverage their social connections, drawing upon their networks to exert pressure on the armed group. The importance of aid recipients in establishing and maintaining humanitarian access in areas under the influence of armed groups has been identified elsewhere, in contexts as diverse as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, and Nepal, but Jackson’s book is perhaps one of the most comprehensive accounts of this phenomenon.

The second lesson is that armed groups’ interference with humanitarian aid can take many different forms. Research that has examined humanitarian access in areas under the influence of armed groups has often, and understandably, focused on violent attacks on aid workers. This is likely due to the fact that violent attacks are the most severe type of interference as well as far more observable than other subtler forms of subversion. But violent interference is just the tip of the iceberg, and aid workers face a diverse array of obstructive activities on the part of armed groups, including bureaucratic constraints, taxation, and varying levels of co-optation. 

Jackson’s book carefully examines the full range of ways in which armed groups interfere with the delivery of humanitarian aid, with a particular focus on the Taliban’s strategy of controlling and co-opting aid in areas under their influence. For much of the insurgency, co-optation was the chosen approach, rather than attacking aid projects and practitioners, reflecting the Taliban’s realization that they had something to gain from allowing humanitarian access. The book traces the ways in which the Taliban managed to exert control over aid, including determining where aid projects were allowed to be implemented, who aid organizations were allowed to hire, as well as how and when humanitarian goods could be transported. This sheds light on the fact that humanitarian practitioners face challenges other than maintaining their own safety. In addition to avoiding violent attacks, humanitarians must navigate armed group attempts to co-opt aid for their own benefit, forcing humanitarian practitioners to make complicated decisions of where to draw the line regarding how much co-optation is acceptable in order to get aid to civilians. 

The third lesson is that armed groups are not unitary in their disposition or behavior towards humanitarian organizations. According to Jackson’s interviews, local Taliban did receive orders from their superiors regarding how to behave, but they were allowed to rely upon their own discretion in their decisions. In contrast to this reality, scholarly understandings of armed groups’ behavior towards humanitarian organizations are built upon more unitary understandings of armed groups, often assuming (even implicitly) that the disposition of the leadership is similar to, or at least can be imposed upon, rank and file soldiers. In seeking to understand armed groups’ behavior towards humanitarians, scholars have predominantly looked to group level characteristics. For instance, researchers have contended that armed groups that are interested in obtaining international legitimacy are more likely to cooperate with humanitarians—an expectation actually echoed by Jackson herself. 

While group level characteristics provide a helpful foundation for anticipating armed groups’ behavior, Jackson’s book reveals just how heterogeneous members of armed groups can be in their behavior towards humanitarian actors. She illustrates that different members of armed groups have different motivations and concerns vis-à-vis humanitarian aid—that while the leadership of an armed group is likely to take a long term perspective and be more interested in establishing legitimacy, rank and file members may have more short term outlooks and feel they are being asked to take on an unacceptable degree of risk in allowing humanitarian access. Humanitarian practitioners are aware of these dynamics, and recognize the need to obtain approval from individuals at multiple levels of armed organizations before delivering aid in areas under their control. While practitioners comport themselves in a way that acknowledges this reality, Jackson’s contribution is an account of the reasons behind these challenging dynamics. 

In addition to these helpful lessons for the delivery of humanitarian aid in violent contexts, the book raises a number of questions that deserve further attention. The first set of questions is related to elders’ motivations for negotiating with the Taliban. Jackson specifies that elders negotiate with the Taliban due to the fact that they seek to obtain, or maintain, legitimacy in their community. However, the book only presents instances in which elders did negotiate with the Taliban, without addressing cases in which they did not. 

Are there examples of cases in which elders shied away from negotiations with the Taliban? What are the consequences of such actions? Would it lead to the elder losing legitimacy within their community? Could they claim that their hands were tied, that the Taliban would not budge? Because negotiating with the Taliban can be very costly, even life threatening—it would be beneficial to more fully understand the costs elders face for not engaging in negotiations with the armed group.

A second set of questions is related to the heterogeneity of humanitarian organizations and practitioners that the Taliban encountered. A strength of the book is its differentiation between three broad categories of civilians in its discussion of negotiations between civilians and the Taliban—customary authorities, private organizations, and individuals—each of which have distinct sources of leverage and types of interests. However, I was surprised that the second category—that of private organizations—encompassed both international and national NGOs, foreign humanitarian practitioners as well as Afghan ones. 

I would anticipate that the Taliban responded differently to negotiation efforts from these different actors. In addition, and in line with the way that Jackson structures her broader discussion of civilians, these actors likely have different sources of leverage and types of interests. This distinction is especially important to grapple with given the international nature of the conflict and the use of humanitarian aid by international military forces to “win hearts and minds”—a strategy that ultimately made many neutral foreign humanitarian practitioners targets of the insurgency. 

Finally, I would have liked to see Jackson engage further with scholars’ different expectations regarding the relationship between territorial control and treatment of civilians. Jackson acknowledges that scholars have put forth a number of arguments pertaining to this relationship. Kalyvas (2006) contends that civilians have the most leverage vis-à-vis armed groups where territorial control is contested. In contrast, Kasfir (2005) argues that armed groups will only entertain demands made by civilians once they have consolidated territorial control. Jackson concludes that her findings align more closely with the latter argument—that as the Taliban increased their control over an area, they became more amenable to negotiating with civilians, including over issues of humanitarian access. Why do we observe the pattern predicted by Kasfir rather than the one predicted by Kalyvas in the case of the Taliban? Indeed, other examples exist in which armed groups allowed humanitarian access exactly because they were weak and needed support from civilians (Haddad & Svoboda 2017). Is there something about the Taliban that makes them behave in this way? Is it possible that some armed groups are the easiest to negotiate with when they are weak while others are the easiest to negotiate with when they are strong? 

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