The coronavirus greatly complicates efforts to overcome the already significant obstacles to the implementation of the Afghan peace process foreseen in the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha on February 29.
The prevalence of the virus in Afghanistan is unknown, given the weakness of the healthcare system and lack of testing. On March 10, the ministry of public health said that there seven confirmed cases, five cases in Herat and two in Samangan plus 60 suspected cases. The department of public health in Herat has called the outbreak “very serious.” 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.
At least 291 people have died of the pandemic in Iran. An activist tweeted from Herat that more than 10,000 Afghans returned from Iran through the Islam Qala border crossing on March 10 with very little screening. The Afghanistan ministry of repatriation and refugees said that 50,000 had returned from Iran in the past two weeks. Testing for the virus can so far be done only in Kabul.
Afghanistan also shares 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 of tens of thousands of Chinese into Pakistan.
There are millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran along with 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 U.S.-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. It is particularly important to screen and quarantine any recent returnees to
Afghanistan from Iran who have been detained. Public health considerations might increase pressure for prisoner releases in Afghanistan.
Ceasefire. There are compelling public health arguments to end hostilities. To prevent 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 seven-day 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.
Intra-Afghan Negotiations (IAN). The U.S.-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.
Widespread bans on public assemblies pose difficulties to the next step of the peace process: convening intra-Afghan negotiations. Qatar and the Taliban have advocated holding the IAN in Doha. But would Qatar welcome a delegation from Afghanistan, plus hundreds of journalists and others?
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 delegates to Oslo from Kabul, Taliban representatives 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. It moves easily across front lines and between the supporters of competing presidential claimants Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. But measures to control the spread of the pandemic could make it even more difficult to negotiate peace. All those with influence on the actors should request an immediate ceasefire, monitoring and testing at the borders, release of detainees, demobilization of armed groups, quarantining of those released and demobilized, increased testing, free passage for health workers and supplies, and the start of intra-Afghan peace negotiations through appropriate technological means under international sponsorship until such time that it is possible to convene negotiations in person.