On May 23rd, the Taliban announced a rare three-days ceasefire to mark the holiday of Eid al-Fitr that ends the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and the Afghan government responded by announcing plans to release up to 2,000 insurgent prisoners, as “a gesture of goodwill to advance peace efforts”. Although the ceasefire has not been explicitly extended by the Taliban, it could pave the way for long-awaited peace talks between the militants and the Afghan government. Though they will be far from easy, direct negotiations are the only way to solve the bloody conflict and to address one of the most alarming challenges the country has ever faced: COVID-19.
According to Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) data, across all 34 provinces in Afghanistan 11,831 people have been infected, some 1,100 have recovered, and 220 have died, as of May 26th 2020. The number of reported positive cases has jumped over the past few weeks and is expected to increase rapidly over the weeks ahead as community transmission escalates and the chain of infection starts becoming domestic. The official given figures regarding infections and deaths vastly understate the scale of the problem: data compiled by the International Rescue Committee reveals significant shortfalls in COVID-19 testing in many conflict-affected countries, including Afghanistan, “highlighting the dangerous prospect of undetected and therefore uncontrolled outbreaks”. The situation is further aggravated by the influx of Afghans from neighboring countries, especially Iran – one of the virus’ global epicenters – and Pakistan, a country which has also been heavily affected by the virus.
The disease may reach its peak in the coming weeks, partly undetected, and Afghanistan is very ill-prepared to manage any major outbreak. The Global Health Security Index, which measures epidemic preparedness, ranks Afghanistan among the least-prepared countries in the world. For a country where over half the population lives below the poverty line and where roughly only one in four people has access to quality health care, the social and economic disruptions could be catastrophic. The extremely fragile health system is not the only major challenge. The country is already struggling with widespread malnutrition, poverty, porous borders, massive internal displacement and a long-running conflict that prevents access to health care in parts of the country.
Food insecurity is a major concern. Even before the pandemic, Afghanistan was home to 14 million people with insufficient access to food, and “the UN and humanitarian actors have begun to raise the alarm about the potentially massive scope of starvation” that could be coming. Prices of basic food commodities have already increased and the regional lockdowns have led to the interruption of regional supply lines, crucial for the landlocked country that depends on imports for most of its food needs. Access to humanitarian assistance and mobility of humanitarian organizations has been reduced, further limiting aid delivery where it is needed most.
Politics and legitimacy
The Afghan government has adopted a range of measures to contain the spread of the disease, including “measured lockdowns” throughout the country and a master response plan for the health sector. Widespread distrust in the authorities and in the quality of the health services negatively affected the response, while the lack of proper oversight increases the chance of corruption. Afghan leaders have been also distracted by the long dispute over the results of the presidential election held on 28 September 2019. The battle has only just been resolved through a new power-sharing agreement signed on 17 May 2020 between President Ashraf Ghani and his challenger Dr Abdullah Abdullah. The agreement gives the latter leadership of the peace process, as head of the new High Council of National Reconciliation.
However, “aspects of the deal remain opaque” and it will not fully resolve the political wrangling, nor ensure a genuine cooperation between the two political camps. Reaching a political agreement to run the country was necessary to boost intra-Afghan negotiations, which were supposed to start before 10 March, according to the 29 February U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha, Qatar. In a message on May 20, the Taliban’s reclusive leader Haibatullah Akhundzada said that militants are still committed to that deal, but since 29 February “there has been little to suggest the Taliban aim to replace fighting with talking, despite US government claims”, Kate Clark stated. Furthermore, they still deny the Afghan government the legitimacy of being a political interlocutor tout court.
The pandemic is a new arena where both the Afghan government and the Taliban struggle for legitimacy through governance. The insurgent group signaled a willingness to work with the Afghan government and international NGOs to combat the spread of COVID-19, in order to get both greater resources and international credit as a government-in-waiting. However, in the long-term this can present the risk of accountability, and for too long the Taliban have refused to do the one thing that would be most helpful: stop the fighting. UNAMA’s latest preliminary figures indicate a trend of escalating civilian casualties and show that neither the Taliban nor the government would spare civilians.
Violence and economic crisis
The response to COVID-19 is taking place in the midst of continued violence and increasing economic uncertainty. The United States and other donor countries fighting a massive epidemic back home, are likely to be preoccupied with domestic concerns for some time, and will reconsider economic pledges to Afghanistan, a country where more than 70 percent of the budget is financed by foreign aid. Regional actors, prone to fill the political gap created by US disengagement, are unwilling or unable to inherit the financial burden and compensate a rapid decline of aid and foreign capital.
The Taliban have for too long ignored repeated calls for a comprehensive humanitarian ceasefire, issued by the UN Secretary-General, the UN Security Council, along with the Afghan government and civil society. The Taliban consider violence their main tool of leverage against the U.S. and the Afghan government, and that a prolonged ceasefire may potentially threaten their strategic momentum.
Although there is little reason to expect the group to completely renounce violence as their primary leverage, two elements may have changed this stance: the pandemic and money. The international aid pledged to Afghanistan will come to an end in 2020, and the country’s dependency on foreign support will likely be used to increase pressure over both the Kabul administration and the Taliban to complete the release of prisoners, start intra-Afghan negotiations, and implement a prolonged ceasefire.
The rapid spread of the virus over the last few weeks and the prospect of dangerous and uncontrolled outbreaks over the next ones has elevated the urgency for peace to unprecedented levels. The Afghan government and the Taliban seem to have grasped the potential for catastrophe. For both actors, the pandemic is a chance to dissipate the doubts over whether they really do want to negotiate and put an end to war. The Kabul administration and the Taliban enjoy a very weak legitimacy vis-à-vis the Afghan population: to cease hostilities for humanitarian reasons and work together for the public health is the only way they can obtain some more legitimacy.