How Will the Coronavirus Impact Afghanistan?

| Intel Brief
The Soufan Center

 

Bottom Line Up Front

  • With Afghanistan sharing a border with Iran, one of the epicenters of the pandemic, government officials in Kabul have warned that COVID-19 cases in Afghanistan could eventually reach into the tens of millions.
  • The Taliban has been cooperating with Afghan health ministry officials in distributing supplies and warning Afghans about the coronavirus in the areas under the militants’ control.
  • The group has attempted to use the coronavirus crisis to portray itself as a responsible stakeholder that provides Afghan citizens with basic services.
  • In the end, the coronavirus crisis may force the Taliban to work more closely with the Afghan government than it would have otherwise, hastening rapprochement between warring sides throughout the country.

Even with Afghanistan on the brink of a looming healthcare disaster as it battles the spread of the coronavirus, the fighting between the Taliban and Afghan government continues unabated in some parts of the country. The number of confirmed COVID-19 positive cases is approaching 800, according to the New York Times. This figure is very likely underreported, given the rudimentary testing facilities available throughout this war-ravaged nation. With Afghanistan sharing a more than 900 km border with Iran, one of the epicenters of the pandemic, government officials in Kabul have warned that overall cases in Afghanistan could eventually reach into the tens of millions, perhaps encompassing as much as two-thirds of the population. If the negotiated peace deal between the United States and the Taliban falls apart, or intra-Afghan dialogue fails, Afghanistan could be plunged back into civil war, with devastating effects for the country’s population and its ability to counter the spread of the coronavirus.

Amidst these grim projections, the only positive development so far has been the Taliban cooperating with Afghan health ministry officials in distributing supplies and warning Afghans about the coronavirus in the areas under the militants’ control. Sultan Shaheen, the official spokesperson of Taliban, said, ‘the Islamic Emirate, through its Health Commission, assures all international health organizations and the WHO of its readiness to cooperate and coordinate with them in combating coronavirus.’ Until September 2019, the Taliban had banned organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Red Cross, from working in areas where the group held influence. A spokesperson of the Afghan Health ministry, Waheedullah Mayar, told a number of media outlets that the Taliban were coordinating with and supporting health ministry efforts in stopping the spread of coronavirus. On March 26th, the Taliban released a pamphlet which asked people to look for coronavirus symptoms and contact the nearest government health center if they experience any symptoms associated with COVID-19.

In further signs that the Taliban is demonstrating an understanding of the severity of the pandemic, the group has shown a willingness to suspend communal prayers in mosques. While encouraging his fighters to assist healthcare workers, Zabibullah Mujahid noted that religious scholars would be consulted about what religious ceremonies and traditions should be temporarily placed on hold. The Taliban’s pragmatism and flexibility have been surprising to many, as the militants have long been associated with ideological dogmatism. The most logical explanation is that the Taliban is concerned about the spread of the virus in areas under its control and within its ranks. The Taliban has effectively used the crisis to portray itself as a responsible stakeholder that provides Afghan citizens with basic services. In its quest to acquire more widespread political legitimacy, the group is working to highlight its ability to execute and manage public administration and civic works, proving that it can be a functioning entity in a future Afghan government. All of the Taliban’s statements and advisories have been issued under the seal of so called ‘Health Commission of the Islamic Emirate,’ in a further effort to reinforce that the group has organizational systems in place to function as a responsible stakeholder.

Though some members of the Taliban and other Sunni extremist groups see the spread of the coronavirus as a sign of the ‘wrath of Allah’ against the decadent West, at an organizational level the group has exercised restraint in its rhetoric. While the Islamic State has publicly called upon its fighters to use the coronavirus crisis as a window of opportunity, the Taliban has taken a different approach. The group has largely focused its attention on providing information about the disease to communities under its control and helping Afghan government health workers and international health organizations combat the virus. Moreover, the Taliban is also astutely using the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to push for the immediate release of its currently imprisoned members. In the end, the pandemic may force the Taliban to work more closely with the Afghan government than it would have otherwise, hastening rapprochement between warring sides throughout the country. If the present coordination continues, it could serve as a confidence building measure as various factions work to forge a working power sharing agreement in Afghanistan, something most observers thought impossible just a few months ago.

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