Social distancing and the Taliban

Could the Covid-19 outbreak jeopardise the Afghan peace process?

April 24, 2020
Taliban fighters in  in Laghman Province. Photo:  Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto/PA Images
Taliban fighters in in Laghman Province. Photo: Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto/PA Images

As parts of the world ground to a halt to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the Afghan peace process took a step forward with an initial prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the Afghan government in early-mid April. Progress in the peace process is essential to ensure that the momentum generated by the 29th February deal between the Taliban and the US government is not lost and to help Afghanistan cope with the global health crisis. Covid-19 could prove devastating for the country embroiled in civil war, where no single government has territorial control, people’s movements are unpredictable and there is a chronically poor health service. The peace process itself is not immune to the virus, a fact made apparent by the announcement that at least 40 staff members in the presidential palace have tested positive. Coronavirus complicates the implementation of a peace process that already had major obstacles in its way.

On 12th April, the Taliban released 12 out of 20 Afghan prisoners in the southern provinces of Kandahar. The move comes after the Afghan government released 100 “low-risk” Taliban prisoners, bringing the total number freed since 8th April to 300. Prisoner exchange is a major component of the deal between the US and the Taliban but has proved a stumbling block. The Afghan government has, understandably, preferred a staggered approach to releasing up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners to ensure they do not return to the battlefield. The Taliban, meanwhile, had previously adopted an uncompromising maximalist position and last week recalled the three-member team it had sent to Kabul to try to finalise the swap.

Releasing prisoners could be further complicated by coronavirus. Prisons are hot spots for contagions, a fact which the Taliban has already highlighted. This could put further pressure on the Afghan government to speed up release. Last week’s prisoner exchange was a positive indicator, with the Taliban telling AFP news agency it was "a goodwill step... to accelerate the prisoner exchange process." Meanwhile, overcoming travel restrictions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Qatar, Zalmay Khalilzad, US envoy to Afghanistan, and commander of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, General Scott Miller, held talks on Monday 13th April with Pakistani military leaders in Islamabad and with senior Taliban representatives in Doha.

There are still, however, no signs that the Taliban is willing to end its battle with the Afghan government on and off the battlefield. The failure to secure an outright ceasefire was made apparent when at the end of March, it was reported that the group had launched more than 300 attacks in a week in around a dozen Afghan provinces. All provinces had also reported positive cases of Covid-19. As of 14th April, Afghanistan had a total of 714 confirmed cases with 23 deaths attributed to the disease according to the Ministry of Public Health. A lack of testing means the true tally is expected to be far higher. While almost all of Afghanistan’s early cases could be traced back to the massive influx of Afghans returning from Iran, the government has now confirmed that some cases are from “community spread” and not connected to travel to Iran and other countries.

The Taliban’s willingness to launch attacks amid a growing health crisis is in stark contrast to its behaviour off the battlefield. The group was quick to launch a public health campaign and has portrayed itself as better able to manage the pandemic than the government, arguing that regime officials only wish to loot foreign funds. In areas under its control, measures include the mandatory quarantining of returnees from Iran for 15 days and the dispatching of teams to distribute gloves, soap and masks.

It is not unusual for the group to fill the role of government. The success of the Taliban insurgency has in part rested on its extensive shadow regime promising fairer and quicker services. But the pandemic creates a further opening for the Taliban to step in where the Afghan government is unable. With nearly 60 per cent of the country beyond the direct control of Kabul, it will inevitably need the support of the Taliban to deliver health interventions to parts of the country. This creates a unique opportunity for the group to strengthen its position in the eyes of the people and the international community at a crucial time in the peace process. In contrast, the Afghan government’s ability to address the health crisis is likely restricted by political divisions in the wake of an electoral crisis, which has seen both the incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah inaugurated as president. Should political grievances stand in the way of a united Covid-19 response, it would be surprising if the balance of popular support did not end up favouring the Taliban.

The outbreak of Covid-19 at the presidential palace has forced President Ghani to isolate and remote manage the country’s response to the virus. Though there is no confirmation that the president himself has contracted the virus, the outbreak inevitably complicates his ability to govern, at least in the short-term. The president will be painfully aware of the need to avoid any further weakening of his position ahead of future talks. Those on the side of the Afghan government are already underprepared and fragmented.

In contrast, the Taliban may go into the negotiations feeling it has the upper hand, having gained considerable experience during the Doha process and in the knowledge of the compromises that the US has already made. The face-to-face talks, initially scheduled for 10th March in Oslo, with informal Afghan “dialogues” in Germany, Uzbekistan, China or Indonesia, will have to be shelved for now in any case as countries impose lockdowns and travel restrictions. But when restrictions are lifted there will likely be significant pressure to quickly establish these talks, which are a vital part of the peace process.

Coronavirus provides a convenient excuse for the government to ignore the imperatives of the peace process, which some Afghan leaders have tried to slow-roll lest it threaten their positions. They should resist the temptation to do this. As the US faces one of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 in the world, there will be little tolerance among senior officials and particularly President Trump for any further delays. The 29th February deal is the clearest opportunity for the US to end the conflict since 2001, ahead of the US presidential elections later this year. Even before the severity of the global pandemic hit home, the US demonstrated limited patience with Afghanistan, cutting $1bn in US aid in late March due to the feud between Ghani and Abdullah.

If decades of conflict is not sufficient reason, there are new compelling health reasons to end hostilities. Movements of fighters and victimised populations fleeing violence are likely to spread disease. Ending the violence will require the commitment of both the Afghan government and the Taliban. The continuation of offensive actions is therefore a deeply concerning trend. And one that seriously undermines the Taliban’s much-publicised claims to be fighting the virus. Tackling Covid-19 will require a unified response which builds on the momentum from the peace agreement. If there was ever a time to implement a ceasefire it is now.