Nearly a year into the coronavirus pandemic, the extent of the virus’s spread in Afghanistan is unclear. Official figures claim the country has seen fewer than 50,000 cases and 2,000 deaths, but there is no question that these figures are wildly underreported. And while the Afghan government is not above concealment and disinformation, this underreporting is more likely caused by weak governance, poor public health capacity, and a lack of access to testing and healthcare services for women. Aware of these limitations, the country’s Ministry of Public Health conducted an antibody survey this summer, the results of which suggested that as many as 10 million Afghans—a third of the population—had been infected. Anecdotal evidence is similarly dire, with Kabul gravediggers reporting death rates close to three times normal.
Uncertainty about the prevalence of the disease intersects with an otherwise unsettled year in Afghanistan. This uncertainty is driven in no small part by a drawdown of U.S. forces and the halting start to intra-Afghan peace negotiations, so it can be difficult to attribute specific developments to individual causes. The coronavirus pandemic is likely a contributing or accelerating factor in all of the issues described here, but not the only one.
Ongoing Pandemic-Era Challenges to Military Readiness
Along with the beginning of intra-Afghan negotiations, the Taliban have launched a brutal offensive across much of Afghanistan, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State has committed still more atrocities against civilians. To some extent, these attacks are simply a continuation of the Taliban and the Islamic State’s tactics over the last several years. But experts also see them as a way of testing the Afghan National Security Forces, which are now less able to rely on U.S. air support as a result of the drawdown agreed to in Doha in February 2020.
The attacks likely also are exploiting coronavirus-specific vulnerabilities. In addition to reductions in direct military support caused by the drawdown, the United States has also dramatically reduced contact with Afghan security forces to minimize the risks of coronavirus exposure. Other NATO forces have faced outbreaks, and the foreign contractors needed to sustain both Afghan and international forces have been affected. There are reports of widespread infections on crowded bases in Afghanistan, with Afghan commanders in some provinces claiming infection rates among security forces reaching 60 to 90 percent, figures that are difficult to verify given the limited testing capacity.
There is less reporting about infection rates in Taliban base areas across the border in Pakistan, but it is hard to detect an effective reduction in their battlefield effectiveness. While it is not clear that the Taliban have specifically targeted areas because of coronavirus infection rates in the Afghan army and police, some provinces with high reported rates have seen intense fighting.
Compounding Harms and Declining International Support
The pandemic has made persistent problems in Afghanistan worse. The virus’s spread in Iran—one of the world’s first hotspots—has driven Afghan economic migrants back home. This year will easily see the largest ever return of Afghan migrants, fueling the disease’s spread in Afghanistan, reducing vitally needed foreign income, and placing further strains on local services.
While Afghan public health officials have tried to repurpose some capabilities for coronavirus testing, contact tracing, and support, fear of the virus has closed or strained community health facilities. Polio vaccination drives have been suspended or ineffective, leading to a spike in child polio cases. Afghan authorities prudently closed schools in the spring, and while elementary schools reopened in September, they have again closed for an early winter break, with unclear plans for reopening.
The international community’s response to these challenges has been mixed. Afghanistan has been able to secure emergency support to address the pandemic and its macroeconomic effects, but long-term donor commitments are declining (while still generous). Donors torn between expressing support for Afghanistan’s government and addressing their frustrations at its shortcomings are increasingly erring on the side of aid conditions that are well intentioned but unlikely to be met.
As noted in April, Afghanistan’s long-term progress has been deeply tested by the combination of peace negotiations with the Taliban and pandemic shutdowns. When it is eventually safe from a public health perspective for Afghan citizens to return to schools and community health centers, will they be safe from Taliban attacks?
In April, large-scale negotiations between the Taliban’s and the Afghan government’s delegations seemed unworkable, given coronavirus-related travel restrictions. This pessimism proved unwarranted, as both in-person talks between the Taliban and Afghan government teams in Doha and even repeated travel between Kabul and Doha for in-person consultations between government negotiators and senior leaders have been possible, apparently without leading to coronavirus outbreaks. Improved testing has certainly been part of the solution, as has the generosity and flexibility of the talks’ Qatari hosts. Notably, countries other than Qatar reportedly remained willing to serve as hosts for the Afghan talks, at least suggesting that there may be logistically feasible options for talks on other conflicts.
That hopeful development, however, has not yet allowed substantial progress toward consolidating a peace process, reducing violence, or even facilitating a coordinated public health response to the pandemic. The antagonists’ divergent perceptions of the military situation and future U.S. decisions about a withdrawal and the peace process have so far been more powerful than the opportunity afforded by the talks.
The coronavirus pandemic has both exposed and worsened preexisting governance weaknesses in Afghanistan. Coinciding with a dramatic U.S. drawdown and negotiations that seem to legitimize the Taliban as a political actor in the country, the virus is putting stress on both the military situation and the social progress Afghanistan has made over the past two decades.