Afghanistan will be hard hit by the coronavirus. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans, returning from the hot spot of Iran, face poverty, violence, weak state institutions, and a medical system lacking the tertiary care resources necessary to treat severe cases of the virus.
Unfortunately, the pandemic also endangers prospects for peace in Afghanistan, just as a long U.S.-Taliban peace process was supposed to transition into an intra-Afghan negotiation about the political future of the country. In this already fragile transition, the coronavirus could offer some political opportunities for peacemakers, but additional complications are more likely to be damaging than constructive.
Coronavirus will change Afghanistan’s relationship with the rest of the world. Its influential neighbors, Iran and Pakistan, are convulsed by the health crisis. Their domestic troubles may distract them from their usual interventions in Afghanistan, but that is not a safe bet. Iran is focused on the damage that U.S. sanctions have done to its public health efforts and it is likely to look for ways to impose costs on the United States, including in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s divided governing authorities are unlikely to be unified in a focus on the virus, and parts of the establishment will refuse to pass up the opportunities created by the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan.
The United States intends to continue its planned drawdown in Afghanistan and has already reduced military contact with Afghans. Washington is cutting assistance to Afghanistan to build diplomatic leverage, but as the United States is forced to spend trillions to address an enforced slowdown in economic activity, it is unlikely to muster the political will to reverse the trend in order to support an Afghan peace process or to bolster its Afghan partners if negotiations fail and they continue to fight the Taliban. Given the depth of Afghanistan’s aid dependence, it will be hard to recover from a collapse in U.S. interest.
For government and Taliban military forces alike, the coronavirus will have implications for their capacity or intent to continue fighting. Specific Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) installations may become hot spots for infection, dramatically reducing readiness. Assistance declines, increases in imported food prices, and capital flight could all lead to inflation and declining purchasing power for ANSF salaries, which also would diminish readiness. Smaller groups of Taliban forces might face similar problems. In addition, one of the most consistent and important forms of support provided by Pakistan to the Taliban has been medical treatment for fighters, which might become less available or less secure as coronavirus spreads in Pakistan. Both forces also may feel compelled by public pressure to reduce their combatant activities, and perhaps to repurpose military formations to supporting public health efforts. For example, the Taliban’s regular attacks on electricity transmission could endanger patients dependent on Kabul’s limited number of ventilators.
Yet reductions in military readiness are unlikely to be, or to appear to be, equal. Both the Afghan government and the Taliban may be tempted to seek military advantages where they believe coronavirus provides a temporary local advantage. The Taliban’s April 1 announcement appears to be instrumental, offering a ceasefire if an outbreak occurred “in an area where we control the situation,” which would allow Taliban consolidation of their areas and attacks on government areas.
Thus far, the coronavirus may have helped initiate the intra-Afghan negotiations. The U.S.-Taliban agreement finalized in late February included an aggressive timeline to begin these negotiations within ten days, even though Kabul was locked in a postelection dispute and still had not chosen a delegation for the talks. It immediately became clear that the parties would not meet this schedule as Kabul and the Taliban had fundamentally different understandings of what each had agreed with the United States. The spread of the virus drew attention away from the sputtering talks and allowed both sides time to regroup, with some success.
Given the potential for detention facilities to serve as coronavirus incubators, the coronavirus has created worldwide demands for prisoner releases and furloughs. A large-scale prison release in Afghanistan appears to have provided Kabul and the Taliban with space to conclude an agreement on prisoner issues, involving concessions from both sides’ maximalist positions. (That said, these gestures also may fuel the spread of the virus as potentially infected prisoners return to their communities.)
Any advantages in intra-Afghan negotiations are likely to be short lived. The coronavirus creates logistical barriers to intra-Afghan negotiations. Taliban and government delegations were expected to meet at an international location, possibly outside of Oslo, with international facilitation in order to begin to frame the issues and process for negotiations. That kind of large-scale international travel is obviously no longer possible. Remote discussions are more feasible, and they appear to have been used to advance talks between Kabul and the Taliban on the details of prisoner releases agreed between the United States and Taliban. But even these technical discussions eventually needed in-person meetings to reach a conclusion. Similarly, the reduction in violence that would conclude the U.S.-Taliban agreement required a senior Taliban leader to travel from Doha to Pakistan to persuade skeptical military commanders. It is hard to imagine that the vastly more complex negotiations required to reach an agreement on the future shape of the Afghan state can succeed without developing relationships and trust face-to-face.
The most important challenge that coronavirus will pose to negotiations is the loss of international attention and leverage. As the United States draws down both troops and assistance, coronavirus will make it far less credible that either decline can be slowed or reversed, meaning that it will be harder to shape agreements within the government of Afghanistan and more difficult to either pressure or incentivize the Taliban to make concessions.
How Much Has Afghanistan Changed?
Many Afghans hope that the Taliban will be forced to wrestle with the reality of a new Afghanistan no longer susceptible to their ideological vision. The coronavirus will test that view. Afghanistan is urbanizing rapidly. Will a virus that is highly communicable in urban settings reverse that trend? Life expectancy has increased, and both maternal and infant mortality have decreased. But will local health providers be able to assist with coronavirus or, with limited protection, will they be wiped out? Girls are attending schools in large numbers. Will students return after school closures end? Will any of these or other social expenditures be prioritized or sustained as foreign aid declines? The answers will shape any negotiation and any potential return of the Taliban as part of Afghanistan’s government.
A public health crisis and the risk of a precipitous decline in international interest and attention could shake the assumptions of a long-standing crisis like Afghanistan’s and allow political leaders to seek solutions in the broad national interest. So far, neither the government nor the Taliban have given any indication that it is prepared to prioritize the current crisis over its preexisting agendas. Unless they do, the challenges posed by the coronavirus are likely to be deadly to efforts to end the war in Afghanistan, and of course to many Afghans.