The coronavirus greatly complicates efforts to overcome the already significant obstacles to the implementation of the Afghan peace process foreseen in the February 29 US-Taliban agreement.
The prevalence of the virus in Afghanistan is unknown, given the weakness of healthcare and lack of testing. On March 10, the ministry of public health said that there 7 confirmed cases, 5 cases in Herat and 2 in Samangan plus 60 suspected cases. https://www.bbc.com/persian/afghanistan-51849320
All known cases are related to Iran with which Afghanistan has a 572-mile largely unmonitored border and where more than 8,000 coronavirus cases have been recorded, making it the fourth-most-affected country after China, South Korea and Italy. Aljazeera: https://www.aljazeera.com/topics/organisations/world-health-organisation.html
At least 291 people have died of the pandemic in Iran. An activist tweeted from Herat that 10,096 Afghans returned from Iran on March 10 with no screening. The ministry of refugees said that 50,000 had returned from Iran in the past two weeks. https://twitter.com/aroonaryan/status/1237759797635813378?s=20
Afghanistan also has a 1,510-mile long border with Pakistan, which is at risk because of the weakness of its public health system, its 596-mile-long border with Iran, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which has brought tens of thousands of Chinese into Pakistan.
There are millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran, cross-border trade and labor markets, and cross-border traffic of nomads, traders, smugglers, and armed groups. The pandemic seems likely to spread quickly from both Iran and Pakistan into Afghanistan.
The pandemic would pose a nearly insuperable problem for a country at peace. The implementation of a complex and challenging peace plan is made even more difficult by the pandemic. The following elements of the peace process are likely to be affected by the pandemic:
Release of prisoners. The US-Taliban agreement includes provisions for the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government and up to 1,000 detainees held by the Taliban. Much of the Afghan public fears that released prisoners will rejoin the Taliban.
But detention centers pose risks of contagion. Iranian authorities have temporarily freed about 70,000 prisoners to help limit the spread of the coronavirus. Public health considerations might increase pressure for prisoner releases in Afghanistan. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/urges-iran-free-political-prisoners-coronavirus-spread-200310184750920.html
There are compelling public health arguments to end hostilities. To prevent the spread of the pandemic, all forces should observe a ceasefire in place and confine themselves to quarters or even disband and return home, since concentrations of forces pose risks of contagion.
The resumption of offensive actions after the end of the pre-February 29 reduction in violence poses the risk of renewed escalation that threatens both the peace process and public health. Movements of both armed men and victimized populations are likely to spread disease.
The US-Taliban agreement was signed on February 29 in Doha in the presence of hundreds of diplomats, journalists, and other witnesses and observers from dozens of countries throughout the world, a type of event that is now impossible to hold for the foreseeable future.
This poses difficulties to the next step of the peace process, convening intra-Afghan negotiations. Qatar and the Taliban have advocated holding the negotiations in Doha. But would Qatar welcome a delegation from Afghanistan, plus hundreds of journalists etc.?
The Taliban political office has advocated negotiations in a succession of countries: Qatar, Norway, Indonesia, Germany, and Uzbekistan. Such a road show is now impossible. The main possible venue is Norway, where authorities have banned gatherings of 500 or more people.
It seems difficult to bring to Oslo delegates from Kabul, Taliban reps from Doha and Pakistan, and representatives of relevant states, including China, Pakistan, and Iran. Plans for informal Afghan “dialogues” in Germany, Uzbekistan, China, or Indonesia will also have to be shelved.
The pandemic makes it even more important to end the war. The virus makes no political, national, religious, or sectarian distinctions. But the measures to control the spread of the pandemic will make it even more difficult to end the war.
Dr. Barnett R. Rubin is a political scientist focused on Afghanistan and South Asia. He is the author of eight books and is currently Senior Fellow and Director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, a leading foreign policy center, as well as previously Senior Advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Dr. Rubin has advised the United Nations, NATO, the United States and the Afghan government on numerous policy matters, including aid policy, security policy, and diplomatic strategy.