The COVID-19 crisis comes at a critical juncture for Afghanistan. The disputed 2019 presidential election has led to a stalemate between incumbent President Ghani and the chief executive of the last government, Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom claim the right to govern. At a time when the Afghan government should be focused on the best chance to bring peace in years, it’s distracted by a political crisis. Meanwhile, progress in the peace process has slowed since the U.S. and Taliban signed a deal in late February. And now the coronavirus is spreading through Afghanistan, a country ill prepared for such an immense public health challenge. Above all, cooperation is needed among all parties, including the Taliban, in order to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. Could such cooperation serve as a springboard to a renewed peace process?

Afghans returning from Iran cross the border at Islam Qala, Herat Province, Afghanistan, March 22, 2020. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Afghans returning from Iran cross the border at Islam Qala, Herat Province, Afghanistan, March 22, 2020. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Last month, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres appealed for a global cease-fire to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Some warring parties in Colombia, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen have expressed their acceptance of the secretary-general’s call. What would it take for Afghan leaders and the Taliban to follow suit?

An Unfolding Disaster in Herat 

Many of the recorded cases of COVID-19 stem from Iran and have spread mostly in the western border city of Herat. (As of this writing, 317 of Afghanistan’s 840 confirmed cases have come from Herat.) With over 74,877 confirmed cases, Iran has been hard hit by the pandemic. Afghanistan’s western neighbor hosts roughly three million Afghan refugees and migrants. In March, an average of 9,000 Afghans a day returned to Afghanistan via border crossings in Herat and Nimroz. Many of these Afghans are returning because they have lost their jobs as Iran’s economy has grinded to a halt.  

For the time being, the overall number of cases remains low but that’s likely due to what we see in many other fragile countries: a lack of sufficient testing facilities. The lack of testing facilities weakened the ability to systematically track returnees from Iran or elsewhere, and efforts to encourage self-quarantine upon arrival were not effective. Indeed, many returnees have traveled to Kabul and elsewhere throughout the country with little to no restrictions. At least 15 of Afghanistan’s provinces with a high number of returnees from Iran are quickly becoming COVID-19 hotspots. 

On Afghanistan’s southern and southeastern borders with Pakistan, the picture is different. The Afghan-Pakistani border was closed from January 29 through April 6 over concerns about the spread of the pandemic. But then the border reopened on April 6 and over 20,000 Afghans returned in the first two days. The border was then shut down again and only opened on a limited basis. The border closure choked Afghanistan’s already weak economy, leading to shortages of basic staples and much needed health equipment and supplies. Pakistan hosts nearly 3 million Afghan refugees and many of these refugees are especially vulnerable as a vast majority of them live in poverty with little to no access to clean water and proper sanitation. Northern borders with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were also temporarily closed, stopping the flow of wheat.  

Responding to the Spread

Unfortunately, many Afghans are simply not taking the threat of the virus seriously, frequenting packed markets, eating in crowded restaurants, and ignoring quarantine guidance. There are reports that some Afghans—fearing the religious stigma attached to virus—are hiding their symptoms and refusing to seek medical help. The government and religious leaders have sought to address this concern and encourage those with symptoms to seek medical assistance.

On March 22, the National Ulema Council issued a declaration calling on Muslims to pray in their homes and began to implement public awareness programs. The government and religious leaders coordinated to send doctors to mosques to speak about how the virus spreads and how people can protect themselves. Another government program brought together religious leaders and doctors to deliver messages over bullhorns about the importance of staying home. 

By the end of March, the government had built testing facilities in Herat, Kabul, Balkh, and Kandahar, issued restrictions on mobility, and closed government offices in an effort to stem the spread.

While Shiite mosques in Afghanistan closed following edicts issued in Iran, Sunni mosques largely stayed open until April 5, when the Ulema High Commission established to prevent the spread of COVID-19 issued a fatwa to close the mosques and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs joined in announcing new restrictions. Prior to the April 5 decision, some mullahs were encouraging people to gather in mosques and pray for a cure.

Unfortunately, there is already a simmering distrust of the government, fueled by the ongoing political infighting over the disputed presidential election. Further undermining citizens’ perceptions of the government’s ability to deal with the crisis, the sluggish bureaucracy has not responded quickly enough in procuring desperately needed medical equipment, which is exacerbated by the border closures.  

Despite sending 236 million AFN to provinces hit hard by COVID-19, including 28 million to Herat, without external support the Afghan government does not have the financial capacity or resources to handle a pandemic of this magnitude. Even before coronavirus came, the Afghan health system was ill prepared to address the medical needs of Afghan citizens. According to the Afghan Statistic Office, there are 536 hospitals with approximately 15,000 beds and roughly three doctors for every 10,000 patients—this for a country of 35 million people. The Afghan Ministry of Public Health reports that there are only 300 ventilators in the whole country.  

It’s critical that the government finds a way to keep the flow of essential goods coming and coordinates border policies with neighboring Pakistan and Iran. The government should also scale up efforts to curb social interaction by providing online services. The government needs a clear communication strategy and public messaging campaign about the necessary precautions to take. But, all that might not be enough. In the end, it may require cooperation between the Taliban and the Kabul government to implement a comprehensive and effective response.  

A Springboard to Cooperation? 

Early in March, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid called the virus a “decree of Allah” saying that it was perhaps sent to punish the wicked. But, the Taliban have issued statements that they will cooperate with health workers on COVID-19. They urged aid organizations to provide assistance in areas under their control, promising to allow safe passage for health workers. On April 2, they announced a cease-fire in all areas under their control hit by the coronavirus—although this means little as there is no active fighting in areas they control. In some of the areas under their control, the Taliban have launched campaigns to raise awareness about the dangers of the virus and have sent suspected cases to local government hospitals.

Afghan religious leaders have called for a cease-fire and cooperation between the Taliban and the government. But, the Taliban have increased their attacks in recent weeks against hotspots such as Herat.  

There is the potential for this crisis to bring the government and the Taliban together—the government has welcomed cooperation on the humanitarian front. In the end, agreeing to a cessation of violence is not a concession for either side (depending on the terms of an agreement), rather a necessary condition for dealing with this crisis. This is a moment when all sides should focus on saving lives. 

But the slow progress over prisoner releases as part of the peace process has pushed the parties even further apart. There are indications that President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are close to reaching an agreement to form an inclusive partnership government—a much welcomed and necessary development.  

Cooperation between the government and the Taliban could build trust at the local level, an important ingredient in any peace process. Here are some ways that cooperation can begin: 

  • A cessation of violence by all sides is desperately needed. A halt to violent attacks benefits all parties, most importantly Afghan civilians.  
  • At the local level, the government and Taliban must jointly guarantee the safety and protection of health and humanitarian responders and let people freely seek medical assistance.  
  • Local joint committees are best positioned to develop coordinated responses to COVID-19 that are most responsive to local needs. Such committees would also be able to effectively communicate measures to protect against the virus. The Ulema High Commission has set up such committees at the provincial level, but more localized committees at the district level could help strengthen the response to the pandemic. 
  • The government and Taliban should allow for the free flow of medical and food supplies, including food deliveries.  
  • The government and Taliban should make public announcements endorsing social distancing.  

Dealing with this pandemic and building a sustainable peace will require a unified Afghan government cooperating and negotiating with the Taliban. To be sure, that is a tall order. Ultimately, all sectors of Afghan society should be part of the effort to combat the virus, just as they should all be included in the peace process. We can only hope that the COVID-19 crisis could provide such an opportunity.  

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