Could the Covid-19 outbreak jeopardise the Afghan peace process?by Emily Winterbotham / April 24, 2020 / Leave a comment
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.