In early 2001, there was only one international organization operating in Afghanistan. This was the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC has been operating in Afghanistan ever since 1980, when armed conflict first broke out in that country. Initially the ICRC's delegation in Pakistan extended its activities to cover Afghanistan, but since 1987 the ICRC has maintained a full-fledged base in Afghanistan, with its Afghani delegation headquartered in Kabul.
The mission of the ICRC everywhere in the world is to do humanitarian work in regions where there is armed conflict. This humanitarian work is accomplished by delegations physically present in those areas of armed conflict. In 2001, there were ICRC delegations working in 60 countries . In all these locations, the staff is multicultural and drawn from myriad nationalities. The largest representation is from the country in which the ICRC delegation is working. In 2001, for the ICRC around the world, the expatriate staff numbered 1137, while locally hired staff numbered 8337. Jakob Kellenberger, President of the ICRC from January 2000, describes the enterprise as 'an impartial, neutral and independent organization whose exclusively humanitarian mission is to protect the lives and dignity of victims of war and internal violence and to provide them with assistance'.
In early 2001, the greatest challenge facing the ICRC was the management of its multicultural delegation in conflict-ridden Afghanistan. According to the Swiss head of ICRC operations in Afghanistan, one of the delegation's prime concerns was to obtain access to the victims of Afghanistan's civil war. This was a problem related to the culture prevalent in Afghanistan. The staff deployed to the ICRC mission in Afghanistan had therefore been selected with care. They were selected because they were culturally sensitive. These individuals also had patience and perseverance , and were prepared to work tirelessly to win the confidence of the Afghani militia on both sides of the civil strife. They were prepared to play the waiting game and work for months cultivating relationships with Afghanis. They were prepared to listen and be educated by the Afghanis about their conflict, and why it was important for them to wage war. Frequently, when ICRC staff attempted to cross battle lines to succour war victims, the victorious army's soldiers prevented them from doing so. Then the ICRC staff would talk to the soldiers. This entailed having endless cups of tea with the soldiers and chatting with them for hours just to build rapport. Such an approach flies in the face of modern management paradigms that stress the need for demonstrating performance within time schedules. Jean-Michel Monod, Delegate General for Asia, comments: 'A typical Swiss manager with UBS or Roche would find the pace at which we build relationships in Afghanistan almost unbearable.'
Before expatriates were assigned to the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan, they were educated about the Afghani world-view. They also had empathy for the Afghani people. In Afghanistan, they adopted the Afghani approach to negotiations, discussions and business meetings. Sometimes when members of the ICRC negotiated with Taliban leaders for permission to provide medical treatment to the victims of war, the actual issue was broached only at the third or fourth meeting. When ICRC staff interacted with Taliban leaders , it was understood that the interactions were intended to be part of a long- term relationship. This is the Afghani way of doing business. The ICRC also believed that this was the appropriate way of relating to people engaged in armed conflict. Such people are not living normal lives. They are prepared to listen to others only after their hearts have been warmed by the human touch. Warriors who have been brutalized by war experiences need to connect at the human level. Monod has observed international negotiators trying to work with the Taliban leaders. These international negotiators fly into Afghanistan, have just a one-hour or two- hour meeting with the leaders, then fly out of Afghanistan again. Monod's comment about this modus operandi is that 'It is impossible that they will succeed in their negotiations. This is not the way Afghanis conduct business. For the Afghans, time is not of the essence.'
This case study is concerned with how the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan elicited cooperation from feuding parties. One approach was to use the Afghanis' own styles of working. One reason why the ICRC succeeded in this is that they had been physically present in Afghanistan with a large delegation since 1987. This delegation comprised 64 expatriates and 1033 locally hired staff. By contrast, the United Nations (UN) in 2001 maintained an international staff of 10 inside Afghanistan. The UN's strategy was to manage its operations in Afghanistan from its mission in the neighbouring country of Pakistan. The UN had a staff of hundreds in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, and these staff would brief their negotiators.
By being physically present in Afghanistan, the ICRC was able to assess the cultural imperatives of the local situation. When they first started their operations in Afghanistan, ICRC delegates had not understood or appreciated the Afghani view of time, so initially they were sometimes denied permission to work with casualties near battlefronts. This forced the ICRC to rethink its approach to working and negotiating with the Afghans. After reflection, it decided that it would have to establish and maintain long-term relationships with all factions. It also decided that staff would spend hours conversing and building rapport at every meeting they held with faction members, in the Afghani tradition.
With effort, the ICRC gained the confidence of the Taliban government. This is exemplified by the following incident. In 1999 the United States attacked with cruise missiles the training bases of the alleged Saudi Arabian terrorist residing in Afghanistan, Osama Bin Laden. UN embassy staff and other personnel decided to pull out of Afghanistan because they feared retaliatory action by the Taliban against foreigners. Unfortunately a UN staffer was killed the day after the shelling, but nothing happened to the ICRC delegation. In fact, the ICRC delegation received a note from the Taliban assuring them that they did not have to leave Afghanistan like other foreigners. They could stay and continue their work, and no harm would come to them. And in fact, no harm came to them as acts of retribution.
There is another reason that all the warring factions in Afghanistan accepted the ICRC. There was a preponderance of Afghanis in the ICRC delegation (as already mentioned, 1033 Afghanis as opposed to 64 expatriates). The Afghani members of the ICRC constituted a link between the ICRC organization and the Afghani people. They educated expatriates about the nuances of Afghanistan's culture.
The Afghani staffers of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan were developed, promoted and encouraged to distinguish themselves professionally. Outstanding Afghani staffers were deployed to other countries as expatriates. An Afghani woman doctor was sent to Sierra Leone, to be part of the ICRC delegation there.
The senior Afghani members of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan have a standing, and are respected for their competence and the fact that they are employed by an international organization. When they present themselves to warring chieftains they are listened to.
There is another reason that the ICRC could successfully conduct its operations in conflict-ridden Afghanistan. Since 1987, the delegation has been with the Afghani people through the thick of wars. Other agencies wound down operations and temporarily left Afghanistan, fearing for the lives of their staff, whenever the embattled situation became fierce. Even in 1992, when the feuding factions of Afghanistan brought their war to Kabul and bombarded the city with heavy artillery , the ICRC delegation persisted with its work of tending the victims of war. At that time it was the only non-Afghani organization still operational, with its entire staff in place.
The first international representative that the Talibans met after consolidating their control over Kabul was the head of the ICRC delegation. The Taliban emissary said, 'We know that you at the ICRC had an excellent working relationship with the Hawani Massoud group , and we sincerely hope that we will be able to establish the same excellent working relationship with you.'
There is a reason for the success of the ICRC with the Taliban. Many of the Taliban members were at one time the Mujahideens who successfully waged a guerrilla war against Russia and managed to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. These Mujahideens, when wounded, were treated and nursed at ICRC hospitals. The ICRC was allowed to start operations only in 1987, but for a decade before that the ICRC cared for Afghani Mujahideens at its hospitals in Peshawar and Quetta in Pakistan.
Even Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, successfully underwent surgery at the ICRC hospital in Quetta. From the outset of the ICRC's operations in Afghanistan, the Afghanis experienced , first-hand, its humanitarian work. By the year 2001, one out of every 100 Afghanis had directly benefited from the ICRC in one way or another. That is why, according to Monod, the ICRC was able to successfully pursue its mission in Afghanistan. That is why the Afghanis extended privileges to the ICRC that were not offered to other international agencies. To quote Monod, 'We were allowed to visit prisons. We were allowed to undertake all possible humanitarian activities in the country.'
The ICRC did not transact with Afghanis from the standpoint of 'throwing the book at them'. In other words, the ICRC did not insist that the world order as constructed by the United States or NATO countries or the EU was what the Afghanis should adopt. Afghanis do not respond well when told, 'This is the way we do things, and this is the way you should do things as well.' Their reaction would be, 'Maybe our way of doing things is the right way and you should follow suit.' The ICRC did not assume a judgmental position, and instead established a relationship of mutual trust with all factions. This trust is illustrated by the following anecdote. At one time the Taliban banned the use of the Christian cross, but they allowed the ICRC to use their cross emblem as an exception. The ICRC succeeded in working jointly with the Afghans by presenting their objectives as the joint objectives of the ICRC and the Afghanis. It even worked with a sister organization called the Red Crescent, modelled along the lines of the Red Cross.
The ICRC also persuaded the Taliban leadership to accept that medical care had to be provided to women in need, as much as to men. After the Taliban accepted this, they followed the ICRC's lead and started separate women's wings in their own hospitals. Medical treatment was provided to female patients in these wings by female medical staff. The ICRC for its part incorporated Taliban practices in its operations. The Taliban view was that women should be at home with their families. Women working in jobs were 'unIslamic', except when they provided health care to other women. The ICRC did not employ Afghani women to work in its offices in Afghanistan. It only hired women as medical care providers to other women. Even the Taliban saw this activity as essential, given that one woman in Afghanistan dies every 30 minutes. The ICRC tried to persuade the Taliban leadership that it is not dishonourable for a woman to pursue a career. Its efforts were rebuffed, however. This was perhaps the only occasion when the ICRC attempted to influence the Taliban way of thinking. It can be said that the ICRC never engaged the warring factions in discussions to try and understand the conflict from the actual participants ' standpoint. Monod's explanation for this is that 'We are not Muslims.'
This stance suggests that the ICRC cannot understand the conflict situation in Afghanistan from the perception of the parties to the conflict: that is, from the insiders' frame of reference. The organization maintains that it is nonetheless viewed by all Afghanis as nonpolitical, nonpartisan and neutral, which is how it views itself.
After the experience of the ICRC in Afghanistan is examined, the following features about intercultural management in a conflictridden, turbulent environment can be inferred.
Successful integration into a turbulent and difficult cultural environment requires a long-standing physical presence in that environment. Acceptance by a culture is a complex and special activity that is best achieved through continuous physical interactions. Integration into a friendly culture in a stable environment is itself facilitated by the physical presence of an organization's members. When the environment is conflict-ridden and turbulent, the requirement for the continuous physical presence of an organization's members is heightened.
The ICRC established its Afghani delegation's main branch in Kabul in 1987, and was physically present continuously since then throughout the ceaseless armed conflict. It was given permission by the Afghans to base itself in that country only in 1987. Before that, from 1979, it provided its services to the Afghanis from Pakistan. Links with the Afghanis were forged even before 1979 through the ICRC mission in New Delhi, India. Most important of all, the ICRC remained in Afghanistan even after all other international agencies closed operations and pulled out.
Conflict-ridden situations do not lend themselves to influence by extraneous cultures. Such circumstances require that the maximum effort at cultural integration is made by the organization operating there. Research indicates that turbulent environments are to be prepared for, rather than treated as complex externalities . Yet international agencies operating in conflict situations often ignore the need to connect with the environment. The content of what is to be negotiated among feuding factions is well detailed, but the actual sensitive aspect of the process of negotiation is ignored.
The ICRC responded to the situation in Afghanistan by accepting the Afghani notion of time, as already discussed. The importance of achieving things over a long time-frame is an Afghani cultural orientation. The ICRC also respected the requests made by the Afghanis. Its observations about how prisons are run in Afghanistan have not been disclosed to the outside world, since keeping assessments confidential is necessary to foster trust with the Afghans. Non-Afghani organizations have no bargaining power that they can leverage with the Taliban. The ICRC employed its approach after fathoming the Afghani mind. And this approach was one of gaining acceptance and credibility with the Taliban, and then working within the parameters prescribed by the Taliban. Monod comments, 'We are not judgmental about the Taliban. We understand where they are coming from. We know about the history of Afghanistan; about the inequitable land ownership systems of the last century that had resulted in suffering for many people. And from that suffering has come a desire to usher in another way of life.' What Monod has observed is in keeping with the views of experts on international negotiation. If there is a single theme running through the literature on international negotiations, it is that the most important consideration is the building of relationships over the long run (see for example Ferraro, 2001). The focus has to be on how the views of both sides can be accommodated. This requires a deep understanding of where the other party is coming from, and what that party's cultural imperatives are. The emphasis has to be on finding common ground based on a relationship of trust and mutual respect.
The ICRC has followed the dictum that it can work with the Taliban without agreeing on everything. What it has not done is lay down conditions. It would go against its cardinal principles if it said to the Taliban, 'We will only tend to your wounded if you change your outlook on how women should be treated.' The credo of the ICRC is to take care of the victims of armed conflict irrespective of the cultural ethos of that place.
This focus on humanitarian work is what contributed to the trust and understanding that existed between the ICRC and the Taliban. The ICRC delegation in Afghanistan has a genuine fondness for the Afghan people at the person-to-person level. A Swiss member of the ICRC married an Afghani woman in 1999. This event was well received by the entire community. Such intercultural marriages are almost unheard of in Afghanistan. Arguably, only an intercultural marriage with a member of the ICRC delegation could have found acceptance in Afghanistan. At a less striking level, all expatriate members of the ICRC have forged friendships with at least one Afghani. At the human level, the ICRC is not perceived as an alien organization.
Why has the ICRC been successful in the conflict-ridden environment of Afghanistan?
In gaining acceptance in Afghanistan, what has the ICRC done to take cognizance of Afghani cultural mores?
In what ways would an international organization behave differently in a conflict-ridden environment, as opposed to a stable environment?
Do international managers operating in conflict-ridden environments have to be imbued with a specific set of attributes?
Would the ICRC have to function differently in the Afghanistan of today?
Are there any cultural issues associated with conflict situations?