Aid agencies urged to talk to Taliban
Kabul - Political leaders are divided about talking to the Taliban to bring peace to Afghanistan yet engagement with militants is seen as a necessity for aid agencies trying to improve life in the war-torn country.
Local and foreign charities say they often have no option but to seek the consent of militant fighters to carry out their work, as the violent insurgency rages against foreign forces.
There are now calls for that contact to be stepped up, amid signs of a shift in attitudes towards aid agencies' presence in Afghanistan and hints at a role for some insurgents in the country's political future.
The Afghanistan Non-Governmental Organisation Safety Office (ANSO), an advisory body for aid agencies, has said the Taliban look "certain to play a permanent, and increasingly political, role" in the coming years.
"We recommend that NGOs start developing strategies for engaging with them rather than avoiding them," director Nic Lee wrote in the group's recent quarterly report.
"We understand that the IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) are increasingly desirous of this engagement and, if handled correctly, will respond to it coherently and non-violently."
In need of urgent help
Afghanistan has become home to an alphabet soup of aid agencies since the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban for harbouring the al-Qaeda leaders who claimed the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 2001.
Decades of bitter conflict and civil strife had left Afghanistan in ruins, with urgent help required to improve basic services and infrastructure.
The country currently has the world's second worst infant mortality rate; disease, poverty and war mean ordinary Afghans do well to see their 45th birthday; while women are often spend only five years in school - if at all.
The call to increase contact with the Taliban - whose ultra-conservative Islamist ideology is partly blamed for the lack of social development - comes amid signs that they no longer see aid agencies as a threat.
ANSO and the Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), an umbrella group of more than 100 local and foreign aid agencies, say there is now a "general downward trend" in attacks on aid workers this year.
They attribute that partly to travel restrictions, better security and risk assessment by aid agencies.
Contact already taking place
But even if statistics show a 60% increase in kidnappings so far this year, they say the Taliban and other fighters appear more open to allowing humanitarian work to take place.
"There is now a different approach to NGOs by armed groups. As soon as armed groups realise they are aid workers bringing humanitarian aid to people, they mostly release them," said ACBAR's director, Laurent Saillard.
More direct contact is already happening, added Bijan Farnoudi, from the International Committee of the Red Cross.
"Today the ICRC has to contact more local armed groups than was the case just one year ago to make sure our staff can travel safely in certain parts of the country," he said.
Officials at two well-established Afghan charities also said that courting trusted intermediaries was essential to being allowed to operate freely.
"We first contact village elders to get permission from the armed groups and then we move in," said Noor Hussain, acting head of Partners in Revitalisation and Building, which has been working on aid projects for the last 20 years.
Lawlessness still a problem
"Armed opposition groups have become more tolerant towards aid workers nowadays."
But fighting - and lawlessness - still pose problems, particularly in rural areas.
"We haven't been able to open clinics or provide health services where there is a 100% presence of armed opposition groups," said Mohammad Kabir, medical co-ordinator at the Afghan Health and Development Services charity.
"We have contacted local elders and influential people in these areas several times so they could mediate but these groups wouldn't give us any assurances on the safety of our staff.
Two months ago, armed men attacked a convoy carrying medicine to central Uruzgan province, looting the supplies and threatening to kill the charity's employees, he added.
"Thirteen clinics remain closed in areas under the control of the armed opposition groups. We haven't been able to reopen them despite our contacts with them," he said.