The novel coronavirus presents yet another challenge for Afghanistan- a country already a victim ofdecades of war. On 25th March 2020, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health announced 32 new cases of coronavirus in the Herat province, putting the total number of cases to 74 in Afghanistan.[i] The disease meanwhile has reached 11 other provinces, in the south, east and north of the country. If urgent actions are not undertaken to control the spread, the number is likely rise substantially, putting half of the country’s population at the risk of getting infected with COVID-19. At a time when the world’s strongest economies are struggling to cope with the spread of COVID-19, the challenge that an impoverished war-ravaged country faces in the wake of this global emergency, can hardly be exaggerated. Amid the growing positive cases across Afghanistan, the Minister of Public Health in a recent press conference quoted the prediction of World Health Organization (WHO) with “the possibility of 16 million people becoming infected with the virus” and warned that it could kill “110,000 people in Afghanistan.”[ii]
Although the pandemic has not had a devastating impact on the country yet, but the way things are moving in the country it is just a matter of time that the situation will go beyond control. The distressing developments in the neighbouring Iran pose a serious danger, especially as Tehran reportedly refused to treat Afghan refugees at their hospitals, forcing many of them to cross over into Afghanistan.[iii] Thousands of Afghans have returned to the provinces neighbouring Iran; which is one of the worst affected countries. According to reports, most of the returnees were not quarantined to check the spread.[iv] The western province of Herat has therefore emerged as the epicenter of the country’s outbreak with at least positive54 cases .[v] Government efforts to persuade people to maintain social distancing have proved futile amid the rush of returnees from Iran and a general lack of adherence to safety guidelines. Given the abysmal state of medical infrastructure in Afghanistan, it is obvious that it is not equipped to deal with a pandemic outbreak and this may well be the new frontline in the war-torn country. Several political and civil society figures have raised concerns over the government’s measures against COVID-19 in Afghanistan. They warn that if the coronavirus fight is exploited politically, the country will face dire consequences.[vi]
The outbreak of corona virus epedemic comes also at a particularly tough time for Afghanistan, as it encounters the critical task of implementing a Peace Agreement signed between the US and the Taliban aimed at ending the 18–year-old war. The task is currently in the shadow of an internal political crisis that has stemmed from the election dispute between President Ashraf Ghani and his key rival in the campaign Dr. Abdullah Abdullah- both of whom claimed the presidency following a disputed Presidential election stained by fraud allegations. It was striking that despite the global corona virus epidemic the US Secretary of State Make Pompeo travelled to Kabul last week to persuade them to end the dispute that has the potential to endanger the United States (US)-led peace efforts.[vii] The move underscored how badly the US wanted to broker an agreement between the rival leaders to have “an inclusive” government take forward the negotiations with the Taliban. In a statement Pompeo said, “The US is disappointed in them and what their conduct means for Afghanistan and our shared interests,” warning their refusal to strike a conciliatory approach “dishonors those Afghan, Americans, and Coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country.”[viii]After Pompeo’s mediation failed, the State Department said it was cutting $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan this year, and potentially another $1 billion in 2021.[ix]
It was apprehended that the rejection of the leaders to support a unified government would further raise questions on the legitimacy of the ‘21 member negotiating team’ announced by the Ministry of Peace Affairs. The Afghan government’s team was headed by Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, former chief of the National Directorate of Security and included politicians, former officials, civil society representatives- among them five women.[x] However in a potential setback to the next steps in the peace process, on 28th March the Taliban declared that it would not negotiate with the team announced by Kabul as it was not selected in the way that included “all Afghan factions”.[xi]
The international response to the Ghani-Abdullah feud in Afghanistan has been divided. Response has ranged from concern and, criticism to the withholding of assistance funds. Major donors like EU and India had made their position somewhat clear by congratulating Ghani after he was declared winner of the Presidential election in February 2020. While the presence of US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad at Ghani’s swearing in ceremony and America’s consistent opposition to the establishment of the parallel government can be interpreted as a tacit backing of Ghani, the US has still not made its preference explicit. The fact that in his recent visit Pompeo met both the leaders separately (and together)indicate that at the moment US does not want to go all the way choose one over another. It is evident that despite US’ disappointment about developments in Kabul, it is not in a position to disentangle itself from the political storm in Afghanistan; neither can Afghanistan let go of its biggest donor.
The visit of the US Secretary of State took place almost a month after the signing of 29th February agreement with the Taliban. The agreement was supposed to have been followed by ‘intra-Afghan negotiation’ on March 10, 2020. But the process got stalled over a Taliban demand for the release of 5000 prisoners by Kabul. Both sides held divergent positions on the release of the prisoners- while the Afghan government agreed for a phased and conditional release, the Taliban insisted that all the prisoners be released in one go as indicated in the Peace Agreement. Just when, it seemed that the prospective negotiations would hit a deadlock, news appeared that the Taliban and the Afghan government held a “virtual” meeting on prisoner release on 22nd March.[xii] The two sides reportedly spoke for over two hours on a Skype meeting facilitated by the US and Qatar where “all sides conveyed their strong commitment to a reduction of violence, intra-Afghan negotiations and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire”.[xiii]Zalmay Khalilzad tweeted about the importance of prisoner release by both sides in taking the peace process forward, further adding that “the coronavirus threat makes prisoner release that much more urgent”.[xiv]The refusal of the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government’s negotiating team puts a question mark over the implementation of the exchange of prisoners.
In the current political context of Afghanistan, the only side that appears to have gained substantially is the Taliban. Today, they have clearly emerged as a legitimate player in Afghanistan’s political landscape whereby the international community has largely demonstrated their eagerness to engage with the group. Moreover, it managed to extract a deal from the US, which previously refused to see it even as a stakeholder in the conflict. The Taliban in the meanwhile has also continued its offensive on security installations.[xv] Last Friday, the group attacked several districts of northern Badakshan province killing at least 10 Afghan security personnel.[xvi]
Even as Afghanistan continues to grapple with multiple challenges, gruesome terrorist attacks on its minority communities shook the world. The latest one was carried out by the Islamic State on a Gurudwara situated in Shorbazaar-at the heart of Kabul, killing 25 members of the Afghan-Sikh community.[xvii] The massacre of Sikhs was the second ISIS attack on a religious minority community in the month of March. Earlier on 6th March a gathering of predominantly Shia Hazara ethnic minority was also attacked, with more than 30 people killed.[xviii]
Be it the political crisis, the peace agreement, the insurgency or the pandemic- the number of challenges have only multiplied in Afghanistan while “peace” remains perpetually elusive for common Afghans. It is time the various stakeholders in Afghanistan cease hostilities and work together to address the global crisis and respond to the appeal by the UN Secretary General António Guterres for an “immediate global ceasefire” to focus on “the true fight of our lives”.[xix] As Bernett R. Rubin- a leading expert on Afghanistan puts it, “To implement this appeal, the secretary general should appoint a personal representative for Afghanistan with a strong background in humanitarian affairs and to help that person succeed, the US and its partners must maintain consistent aid to the Afghan state, even as they withdraw troops under their commitments in the February 29 agreement.”[xx]
*Dr. Anwesha Ghosh, Research Fellow Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
[i]“32 New Cases of COVID-19 in Afghanistan, Total 74”.ToloNews,March 25,2020. Available at:https://tolonews.com/index.php/afghanistan/32-new-cases-covid-10-afghanistan-total-74 (Accessed on 25.3.2020).
[ii] “Coronavirus could kill 110,000 people in Afghanistan, warns public health minister.”TheKaama Press, March 24,2020 Available at:https://www.khaama.com/coronavirus-could-kill-110000-people-in-afghanistan-warns-public-health-minister-04556/ (Accessed on 25.3.2020).
[iii] “Hospitals in Iran refuse to treat Afghans amid coronavirus pandemic”. The Khaama Press, March 21, 2020. Available at: https://www.khaama.com/hospitals-in-iran-refuse-to-treat-afghans-amid-coronavirus-pandemic-04533/ (Accessed on 26.3.2020).
[iv] Ali M Latifi& Roya Heydari, “Cononavirus: Herat emerges as Afghanistan’s epicenter”. Al Jazeera, March 26,2020. Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/coronavirus-herat-emerges-afghanistan-epicentre-200325032420910.html
[vi] “Afghan Govt. Criticised for Playing Politics With COVID-19”.ToloNews,March 23,2020. Available at:https://tolonews.com/index.php/health/afghan-govt-criticized-playing-politics-covid-19(Accessed on 26.3.2020).
[vii]“US cuts Afghan aid by $1bn after Pompeo fails to end impasse.”Al Jazeera, March 24,2020. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/cuts-afghan-aid-1bn-pompeo-fails-impasse-200324015906774.html(Accessed on 25.3.2020).
[viii]“US cuts Afghan aid by $1bn after Pompeo fails to end impasse.”Al Jazeera, March 24,2020. Available at:https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/cuts-afghan-aid-1bn-pompeo-fails-impasse-200324015906774.html(Accessed on 25.3.2020).
[x] “Taliban refuses to talk to newly-formed Afghan government team”. Al Jazeera, March 28, 2020.Avialble at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/taliban-refuses-talk-newly-formed-afghan-government-team-200328141120875.html (Accessed on 29.3.2020)
[xiii] Abdul QaderSediqi, “Taliban-Afghan government Skype Call breathes life into peace process”. Reuters, March 23, 2020. Available at: https://in.reuters.com/article/usa-afghanistan-taliban/taliban-afghan-government-skype-call-breathes-life-into-peace-process-idINKBN21A0HW (Accessed on 26.3.2020)
[xv] “Over 40 Killed in Taliban Attacks Over Weekend in Afghanistan”. Anti War.Com,March 22, 2020. Available at:https://news.antiwar.com/2020/03/22/over-40-killed-in-taliban-attacks-over-weekend-in-afghanistan/(Accessed on 26.3.2020)
[xvi] “Taliban says no to Afghan negotiators” The Hindu, March 28, 2020. Available at : https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/taliban-says-no-to-afghan-negotiators/article31195477.ece(Accessed on 29.3.2020)
[xvii] “Afghanistan: dozens killed in attack on Kabul Sikh Temple”. The Guardian, March 26, 2020. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/25/afghanistan-dozens-killed-in-attack-on-kabul-sikh-temple?fbclid=IwAR3qS413FH-jl_VJyoKi_O24LGyS2vbcS11ePd34Y9MXf4SC6kvZFvq8GU8 (Accessed on 26.3.2020)
[xix] “COVID-19: UN chief calls for global ceasefire to focus on ‘the true fight of our lives’”. UN News, March 23, 2020.” Available at:https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059972 (Accessed on 26.3.2020).s
[xx]Bernett R. Rubin, “An Ailing America Must not Abandon Afghanistan”. Foreign Policy, March 26, 2020. Available at:https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/26/afghanistan-aid-taliban-ailing-america-must-not-abandon/ (Accessed on 27.3.2020)