Diplomatic efforts are under way to coordinate a humanitarian response to COVID-19 in Afghanistan among the government, Taliban, and international actors. These efforts are also proposing ways to de-conflict the humanitarian response with the ongoing hostilities and peace process.
These efforts address Afghanistan in a national context, but the country has largely open borders and mobile populations of both Afghans and foreigners. This note provides a preliminary overview of regional aspects of COVID-19 contagion and response in Afghanistan and proposes initial measures for understanding and addressing the resulting concerns.
The spread of COVID-19 in Afghanistan is taking place in a regional context in which Iran is the main center of infection. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) as of this writing, Iran has the third largest number of confirmed cases in the world, after China and Italy, with a total of nearly 18,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths. The effective mortality rate of 6.5 percent probably indicates at least a threefold underestimate of total infections. Those numbers are growing exponentially.
The following vectors are liable to affect regional contagion:
1. According to various reports, between 10,000 and 15,000 Afghans are returning to Afghanistan daily from Iran with little or no monitoring of infection.
2. The Liwa Fatemiyoun, or Fatima Brigades, a militia founded in 2014, has recruited an estimated 10,000-20,000 Shiite young men from Afghanistan to fight in Syria, where serious outbreaks of COVID-19 are reported, especially among displaced people in Northwest Syria. An unknown number of young men are traveling among Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria for military purposes. It is unknown if their movements are included in the figures for Afghan returnees from Iran mentioned above.
3. There are numerous unmonitored military, civilian, legal, and illegal population movements among Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan in the Baluchistan area shared by all three countries, as well as between the predominantly Pashtun areas of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan currently has only 241 confirmed cases, an underestimated number certain to grow. There is little or no medical monitoring at the border even of legal and official population movements.
4. The Taliban are a Pakistan-Afghanistan cross-border insurgency capitalizing on longstanding cross-border population movements. Taliban wounded may be transported from Afghanistan to Pakistan for treatment and fighters move freely across the border in many areas.
The Pakistan military has fenced much of the contested border, which may stop the spread of disease and halt movements of militants opposed to the Pakistan military, but may also hinder populations from seeking or receiving medical assistance.
5. Iran is reported to have released as many as 85,000 prisoners in an attempt to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in places of detention. The number of Afghans in detention in Iran is high, so many of those released may be Afghans, some of whom may have returned to Afghanistan. At least some Afghan returnees from Iran may have been detained in Afghanistan, adding to the risk among the prison population in Afghanistan.
6. U.S. sanctions on Iran are having an impact on Iran’s ability to deal with the crisis. The magnitude of the impact and the responsibility for it is subject to political dispute, but its existence is not. Regardless of the answers to these political questions, it is urgent for both Iran and for Iran’s neighbors, notably Afghanistan, to eliminate any obstacles to humanitarian response originating in the sanctions, even indirectly. In particular it would be worth investigating how U.S. sanctions against Iran are affecting the flows of potentially infected populations between Iran and Afghanistan.
7. Virtually no medical equipment and supplies are manufactured in Afghanistan, so the additional equipment needed will have to come from abroad. China appears to be the main source of such assistance to Afghanistan. Chinese assistance is flown into Kabul or transported overland to Kabul via Pakistan and is therefore under control of the government. It is unknown what mechanisms exist for distributing the materials received to provinces in need or to medical professionals working in areas under Taliban control or influence.
8. The Central Asian states have very few confirmed cases (Kazakhstan reports 36 and Uzbekistan 16) and are trying to close their borders with Afghanistan and Iran. The true situation on these borders is unknown.
9. Treatment of disease and control of contagion are heavily dependent on the supply of electricity and telecommunications, including the internet. Afghanistan is externally dependent for most of its infrastructure. It is unknown to what extent overload of electricity and communications networks may risk limiting supply to Afghanistan.
10. Combat operations periodically interrupt both electricity supply and telecommunications in parts of Afghanistan. It is urgent to halt any such interruptions.
11. The U.S. and NATO are in the midst of implementing a troop withdrawal of Operation Resolute Support (RS) as envisaged by the February 29 agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban. This will involve massive logistical activity inconsistent with social isolation. There are reports of both infection and lack thereof among RS personnel. Some personnel to be rotated into the country are reportedly being kept in quarantine. The humanitarian actors need to be able to integrate accurate information on these measures into their planning.
12. Planned release of detainees by both the Afghan government and the Taliban will have important implications for contagion. Prisons are major hot spots for contagion, and prisoner release is a public health imperative as in Iran. Monitoring of released prisoners will be needed both to guarantee that they do not rejoin the fight and to prevent them from spreading disease from prisons into the general population. While the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and others are engaged in medical monitoring of prisons, these activities need to be integrated with planning for implementation of commitments to prisoner release in the peace process.
All of the above is based on media reports and speculation. There is an urgent need for accurate information.
The crisis poses difficult issues of the relation of humanitarian response to political and military initiatives. In order to address concerns about political manipulation of humanitarian concerns and response, it is imperative to address medical issues under impartial humanitarian leadership. At the same time, without measures to address political and military obstacles to the implementation of humanitarian measures, the latter will fail.
China has announced plans for a regional video conference on COVID-19 response with at least ten countries in the Europe-Central Asian region including Afghanistan. At least the WHO, ICRC, and the U.N. Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) need to coordinate their approaches in Kabul and approach the relevant political and military actors. Meetings could take place through video conference.
Next, these organizations could reach out to their counterparts in Tehran and Islamabad (Tehran is more urgent) to share information and coordinate measures both at the border and behind the border. For instance, there are reports that the rationing of health care in Iran has led to the denial of care to Afghans, which is likely to accelerate the return to Afghanistan of infected people.
Initially, regional consultations could involve only relevant international organizations and experts invited on an individual basis. The goal would be to reach consensus quickly on required measures and extend the video consultations to include the host governments, as well as the U.S. because of its role in Afghanistan, China as the leading assistance provider, and states active in humanitarian response. While this should not become a reason for delay, it would be desirable to include both the Afghan government’s and the Taliban’s relevant health professionals in the consultations. This would require a change in the Taliban’s refusal to meet with the Afghan government before implementation of the prisoner release. In the changed context of the pandemic, it is necessary to coordinate the prisoner release across conflict divisions in the interest of public health as well as peace. Here again the leadership of impartial humanitarian actors will be essential.
These regional consultations should propose how to monitor cross-border population flows and contagion. Bilateral arrangements for medical monitoring on the Iran-Afghanistan and Afghanistan-Pakistan borders are needed urgently. To the extent possible these should include military personnel movements.
While the humanitarian fact-finding and strategizing should proceed independently of the political processes, they will provide the means to assess how the political-military situation poses obstacles to the required humanitarian and medical action. The humanitarian actors should form a research cell on these political and military issues posed by the medical crisis in order to present them impartially on purely humanitarian grounds to the relevant political and military authorities.
At the appropriate moment it may be necessary to seek action by the U.N. Security Council to provide the necessary authorities for a regional response.
Barnett R. Rubin is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University and author of many books, including "Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror."
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”