Issue 27: Afghanistan, the pandemic, and the peace process

The coronavirus might have led Afghanistan's warring sides to seek common purpose. But the sticky question of prisoner release has only pushed them further apart.

Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter and co-edited by Charlotte Reboul and Paisley Sim.  Today’s briefing is by Andrew (AP).

FEW COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD are as ill-prepared for a serious pandemic as Afghanistan. There are only 0.3 doctors per thousand inhabitants (Canada has 2.7, Germany has 4.1), it has very poor health care infrastructure outside of the main cities, and the central government is weak and corrupt. The historic peace deal with the Taliban insurgents that was signed in early March has fallen apart, while Afghanistan’s two main political leaders, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, continue to bicker over who was the actual winner of last fall’s presidential election. 

There was hope that the COVID-19 pandemic would help with the peace process in Afghanistan, bringing the two sides together in common cause. Instead, the opposite seems to be the case. Even as the country deals with a growing caseload and struggles to conduct even the most limited testing for the virus, the Taliban insurgents have spent the last few weeks launching an average of 70 attacks a day, killing hundreds of government forces. And just this week they rejected calls for a Ramadan truce as “not rational,” while increasing the intensity of their attacks on government forces. 

Sitting at the intersection of the peace process and the pandemic is the question of Taliban prisoners. Without a resolution of this fundamental problem, the country cannot move forward. 

The Peace Process

Before the pandemic hit, the peace deal that the United States signed with the Taliban insurgency at the beginning of March was the front runner for the biggest news story of 2021. According to the deal, peace would come in two stages. The first was an agreement between the United States government and the Taliban, and what it deal boils down to is that the Americans promised to leave, and the Taliban have promised to behave. 

More specifically, the U.S. and the allies will withdraw all of their military and civilian personnel within fourteen months, with 8600 of the Americans’ nearly 14000 troops leaving within the first 135 days.  In exchange, the Taliban agree to sever all ties with terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda, and promise not to let Afghanistan serve as a base of operations for attacks on the United States. 

But as a confidence-building measure, the United States also committed the Afghan government to releasing 5000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1000 members of the Afghan security forces currently held by the Taliban. But what made this problematic is that the Aghan government was not party to these initial talks, and it is not clear how much input they had into the prisoner swap. 

The US-Taliban deal was supposed to be followed by intra-Afghan talks between the government and the Taliban. These negotiations would attempt to resolve sticky issues such as the implementation of a long-term cease-fire, the status of women’s rights, and the ultimate role of the Taliban in Afghanistan’s politics. Talks started at the end of March, but the Taliban walked out in early April, calling them “fruitless.” 

At the core of the dispute was the status of the prisoner exchange. Afghan president Ashraf Ghani refused to release the 5000 Taliban prisoners the Americans had promised, saying he’d made no such deal. While Ghani is willing to release up to 400 low-level fighters, his position is that there is no question of setting free the high-level commanders demanded by the Taliban. As a member of Ghani’s negotiating team put it: “We cannot release the killers of our people”.

The Pandemic

While the wrangling over the peace process dragged on, the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading into Afghanistan. In its initial stages, the outbreak was concentrated in the western city of Herat. This is not surprising, since Herat sits on the border with Iran -- one of the earliest and most hard hit countries. In the span of just a couple of weeks in February and early March, tens of thousands of Afghans returned home through Herat, fleeing the pandemic that had gripped Iran. By the end of March Afghanistan was seeing community transmission throughout the country. 

According to the latest official figures, there are 1703 cases of COVID-19 in the country, with 57 deaths registered. The cases are spread out across the country, with 479 in Kabul, 420 in Herat, and 224 in Kandahar. But this certainly understates the extent of the pandemic in Afghanistan. The government has extremely weak diagnostic testing capacity, and is having trouble sourcing the reagents needed to process the few tests it can conduct. As a result, coronavirus testing has basically stopped outside of Kabul, and even there they have ceased bringing in new samples because of the enormous backlog. The government announced Monday that it was sourcing 10 000 new test kits, as well as 500 new ventilators, but again, it is not clear the health ministry has the ability to even make use of them. 

In mid-March the government closed all schools, universities, madrassas, cancelled large gatherings, and encouraged social distancing. But otherwise the Afghan government has limited ability to undertake the various fiscal and social measures that have become part of the standard coronavirus response toolkit in other countries. Afghanistan initially pledged only $25 million to fight the virus, one per cent of its GDP. And because the country relies so heavily on humanitarian assistance, the restrictions on movement and self-isolation strategies that are standard elsewhere are very difficult to enforce. 

Throw in the country’s high malnutrition rates, poor water and sanitation infrastructure, the unequal access of women to health services, and high rates of physical disability and mental health problems, and it is easy to understand the sense of fatalism that permeates the government

The Taliban

In many ways, the response by the Taliban to the pandemic has been pretty encouraging. Like other insurgent groups and cartels around the world, they are taking advantage of the situation to demonstrate their bona fides as state-like actors. On March 18 they issued a statement calling COVID-19 as a “decree of Allah,” urging people to recite prayers, seek forgiveness, read the Koran and increase their charitable giving. 

But the statement also urged people to follow the safety guidelines issued by health organizations, and the Taliban has started to work with healthcare workers and members of international development organisations to mitigate the spread of the disease. This is an about face from their usual strategy of simply killing these workers. They have also helped distribute equipment such as masks and gloves, set up quarantine centres in areas they control, and started conducting educational workshops on handwashing and other hygiene measures. 

But it is significant that the Taliban’s first statement about the pandemic, issued on March 14, was about the status of prisoners. Afghanistan has some of the worst prisons in the world, and everyone -- the Americans, the Afghan government, and the Taliban -- accepts that it is only a matter of time before the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps through the unprotected prison population. The United States has urged the Afghan government to move ahead with the scheduled release of Taliban prisoners, describing the situation as “urgent”. But Ghani continues to stall on prisoner release, demanding that first the Taliban adhere to a cease-fire. 

And that is something the Taliban won’t go along with. As they see it, the release of prisoners was a baseline commitment for the peace process to even begin. And with the COVID-19 pandemic making the situation all the more pressing, they are unwilling to give up on the only leverage they have -- violence. In all likelihood, Afghanistan’s decades-long nightmare will only get worse in the months to come. (AP)

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