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Coronavirus in Conflict-torn Afghanistan


“Coronavirus be damned,” said the major, who said he hadn’t slept in two days. “I am busy fighting another virus — the Taliban.”

The heinous terrorist attack of 12th May in Afghanistan against innocent civilians, including women and children, at the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital maternity ward amid the threat of COVID-19 has caused a wave of horror and repulsion. President Ghani condemned the attack and ordered the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF) to launch full offensive operations against the Taliban insurgents. Taliban has, on the other hand, denied the responsibility of the attack, but without the words of condemnation of the attack. While condemning the attacks, The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that the Taliban and the Afghan government should cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Afghanistan continues to remain in the mode of denial despite the stark reality of being at the highest risk areas for coronavirus. As of 14thMay, the overall count in the country has reached 5,639 positive cases with the death toll of 136 and 691 recoveries. The total number of cases recorded in Kabul Province has reached to 1556, followed by Herat with 935 cases, and then Kandahar with 613 cases. The low number of reported cases raises the fear of limited testing capacity and the crumbled health system of the country. Abdul Qayoum Rahimi, Herat’s governor expressed the concern over the upward trajectory of cases in the country adding “We are in a situation where the politicians and even some parts of the government don’t feel how grave the danger if we don’t start acting, I am afraid there might come a day where we can’t even collect the dead.”

Afghanistan shares boundaries with Iran, which is one of the worst affected areas of the COVID -19 pandemic. The porous boundaries with Iran pose the challenge to restrict the entry of millions of migrants entering Afghanistan since March-end. Heart province, which shares a large border with Iran, reported the first positive and is the main entry point to Afghanistan. This has raised fears of the spread of the virus across the country. Many migrants have returned home in villages and towns without proper medical screening.The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has warned that the virus could spread up to 80 per cent of the country’s total population of 35 million if not contained with the immediate actions. The global agency also raises the concern about the safety of more than 271,000 people who have returned from Iran and Pakistan since January amidst the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.

The spread of the virus at the time of the global health epidemic exposes the political crises in Afghanistan along with a fragile health care system. The results of the presidential election of 2019 remain disputed and have led to a constitutional crisis in the country with claims to govern by incumbent President Ghani and the chief executive of the last government, Abdullah. Despite the chaos, the Ghani-led government has taken some steps to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. On March 18, the Ministry of Interior Affairs officially banned all large gatherings and ordered the lockdown in most provinces, especially urban cities such as Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar, Logar, and Jalalabad. Islamic scholars released a fatwa stating that all religious fasting and breaking of fast for Ramadan be practiced at home. The Afghan government has also been coordinating at the international levels with the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and the World Bank to launch a health campaign to deal with coronavirus. The World Bank has allocated a grant of US$100.4 mn to all the 34 provinces in the country.

US- Taliban Peace Process in the Times of Coronavirus

At this critical juncture when the country is in grip of coronavirus pandemic, the US-Taliban
the peace process remains fragile in the uncertain political trajectory. The spread of the virus has complicated The US-Taliban agreement which was finalized in late February. According to the pact, the United States will withdraw approximately 8,500 troops out of 12,000 troops within fourteen months in a phased manner.The outbreak of pandemic in the country poses an obstacle in the implementation of a complex and challenging peace plan. The withdrawal movement of troops has been affected due to the quarantine measures and restrictions on cross border movements. The prison swap agreement has become one of the roadblocks in the negotiations process.  According to the agreement, the United States is committed to ensuring the expeditious release of combat and political prisoners as a confidence-building measure with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides. The Afghan government wants to keep the prisoners to keep a stronghold in the negotiation process and insists on the gradual release of prisoners. The delay in the release of prisoners has distanced the Taliban from peace deal negotiations. The Taliban continues to assert that it won’t be a party of intra-afghan peace process unless the government releases 5000 members and won’t release the 1500 prisoners it has in its captivity till then. The prisoner swap pact becomes critical when the global health experts across the world have raised concerns about prisons and jails being the potential hotspots of coronavirus. Even if the prisoners are released, there is constant danger of the spread of infection. The coronavirus has also created logistical barriers to intra-Afghan negotiations and reduces the scope of any international facilitation like one proposed in Oslo.

Taliban as a Stakeholder During the Pandemic

According to the Afghan National Security Council, the Taliban continues to strike attacks even during the pandemic with an average of 55 attacks a day since March 1. The Taliban is repeatedly targeting Afghan security officials as reported in the deadliest attack in Takhar province in northeast Afghanistan in which 16 soldiers were killed along with two policemen. The Taliban has not commented on the attacks against Afghan forces but confirms compliance with the terms of the U.S. agreement.Although the US – Taliban peace deal does not prevent Taliban attacks on the Afghan government but had expected to reduce the violence level in the region. “While there are several factors which pose a challenge to a peace deal between Taliban and US, violence is the major one” accounted Laurel Miller, who previously served as the acting US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The violence indicates the reluctance of the Taliban to engage with the government after the delay in the prison swap agreement.

Coronavirus Covid-19

In this volatile condition, the COVID – 19 pandemic offers the Afghan government and the Taliban to cooperate to tackle the virus and control the violence in the country. The pragmatic and flexible approach in the times of pandemic brings out the potential of the Taliban in the resettlement process of Afghanistan. The Taliban is trying to use the pandemic to emerge as an important stakeholder in the fragile political scenario in the country. The Taliban has not launched a spring offensive since the beginning of the Afghan war and has been avoiding the publicizing of attacks on social media.  The group is actively creating awareness about COVID – 19 symptoms and hygiene practices and the Taliban fighters are being instructed to help healthcare workers. The Taliban has asked to put the religious ceremonies and traditions which require huge gatherings on hold. The Taliban is even engaging with the International Committee of Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations to arrange them to assist in Taliban-controlled areas affected by COVID-19. Taliban appears to be asserting its political legitimacy in its conditional response to deal with the health epidemic by offering ceasefires only in afflicted areas under its control, and not in government-controlled areas. The present scenario of the health crises offers the opportunity to reach a political compromise on the humanitarian grounds as urged by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.


As the coronavirus takes the entire world into its grip, the consequences of the pandemic are more profound in conflict-affected areas like Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s poor healthcare facilities, widespread poverty, violence, fragmented governance, and weak state institutions make the country a risk area for coronavirus. The Taliban and the Afghan government both are asserting their political credibility while attempting to respond to the pandemic, but the competing political interests have undermined any concentrated response. The global pandemic compels a call for the cessation of hostilities and ceasefire to control its spread.

It is a need of the hour for both the Unified Afghan government and the Taliban to prioritize the extraordinary medical emergency over their pre-existing divisive agendas. COVID -19 crises could provide an opportunity for all sectors of Afghan society to be a part of the effort to combat the virus, just as they should all be included in the peace process.

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