There are moments in the life of a nation that determine the legacy of their politicians – how they will be remembered in the history of their nation. This is such a moment, for many nations – including Afghanistan. The coronavirus is spreading with unbelievable speed. Following the first cases in China, it took 67 days before the first 100,000 were infected, 11 days to reach 200,000 and 4 more days to reach 300,000! It has now reached half a million. An explosive development – and it will continue. Even the wealthiest countries are struggling. Hospitals cannot handle the situation. Medical staff are exhausted. They lack testing equipment, protective clothes, respirators. In Italy nearly 900 died in one day. Military trucks are taking the dead corpses away, since there is no way of giving them a decent funeral.
Economies are collapsing. Thousands and thousands of businesses close, with unemployment rising dramatically. Governments struggle to handle the impact with enormous financial support to keep essential production and services going. We have no idea how much this will cost in the end. We only know that this is a global setback the modern world has never seen before. Mankind itself is threatened, according to the UN Secretary-General.
I am restricted to my home outside of Oslo. The entire society is basically closed. There is nowhere to go to meet people. Even visiting my daughters and grandchildren could be risky. I buy food once a week – early in the morning to avoid other people and the risk of contamination. If I meet somebody, we keep 2 meters of distance. It is a wartime situation, but the enemy is invisible and may even have invaded my own body.
I left Afghanistan exactly 10 years ago. For 10 years, I have received a collection of Afghan news twice every day. I read them all. Afghanistan remains a part of me. I have travelled back as often as I could. And I hope to return. It is a country and a people that gave me so much, taught me so much and made me forever grateful.
But the news makes me deeply worried. The number of people infected with the coronavirus is increasing. And the real number is certainly much higher than reported – as in all other countries. Afghanistan is not well-equipped to handle the pandemic – after years of war, widespread poverty and a weak health service.
In my country – and many other European countries – politicians have put their disagreements aside. We have never seen this kind of broad political consensus since right after the Second World War. This is a time for a unified and strong response. Only then will the public have confidence in their government and their politicians. And now, confidence in the government is essential to make us act as one people.
To repeat myself: This is a moment that will define the place of politicians in history. It is now that all will shape their legacy. That applies to Afghanistan more than most other countries. Afghanistan could be facing a catastrophe – on top of a war that has already exhausted its people. There is an urgent need for a response, where politicians stand together to face their common enemy.
The two main political rivals – President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah - have to make a fundamental choice: Do they want to be remembered as politicians, who placed their own egos at the center of their attention when the nation was standing on the brink of yet another disaster? Or do they prefer to be remembered as statesmen, who placed the well-being of their people above their own stubbornness? Will they be able to respond to the needs of their population and unite in an inclusive government? This pandemic will require all their energy and wisdom. It will require the mobilization of human and financial resources. Do not waste precious time!
My appeal goes beyond the political elite in Kabul. Afghanistan is facing a deadly virus – in the middle of a deadly war. But there is now an opportunity to end the war. The first step should be to stop the violence and concentrate on the fight against the virus. That could be done quickly – perhaps with the assistance of a third party - by clear, unilateral commitments by the Taliban, the government and international forces. It can be done without first having solved political disagreements about negotiating teams and negotiating formats. However, an agreement between the rivals in Kabul must then be reached to start real negotiations.
Handling a pandemic and a peace process at the same time is a tremendous challenge. But the alternative is infinitely worse. And it is unacceptable. The Afghan people cannot be left to suffer the pain of the pandemic and the war at the very same time. If all of Afghanistan is not included in the fight against the virus, then the virus will win. In other words: if the fighting is not brought to an end, then the virus will not be stopped.
Afghanistan could face a brighter future. This unique country is at a critical crossroads: Please, bring the political quarrels in Kabul to an end. Time has come to unite.
About the author:
Kai Eide is the former UN Special Representative to the Secretary-General in Afghanistan.