A Luckless Afghanistan Faces a Coronavirus Disaster

A squabbling government, an insurgent Taliban, an invisible health structure spell calamity

Photo Credit: Cordaid

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

The spread of Covid-19 in Afghanistan has created a smokescreen that no one seems to be able to see through. The situation is complicated by the dwindling economic situation along with the seeming paralysis of the government in Kabul.

Whereas the increasing power struggle among the Afghans – the Taliban, the elected president, Ashraf Ghani, and Abdullah Abdullah, the self-declared president – was itself derailing the peace process, taking it almost to the breaking point, the spread of the coronavirus has added a new caveat, likely to leave a significantly negative impact on the peace process.

Neither the Taliban nor the government in Kabul can afford to let the virus get out of hand, a frightening possibility in a country with almost nonexistent health infrastructure or with neither side capable of enforcing social distancing, tracing of those infected or other crucial methods of fighting the disease.  A pandemic outbreak would not only make life difficult for Afghans on both sides of the military equation, but the government, already hard-pressed by myriad internal and external challenges, would equally have massive odds to overcome.

For one thing, the spread of the virus would further cripple the already shattered economy, creating a big enough economic crisis to generate a massive political – armed or otherwise – conflict. And the virus is spreading. According to a warning issued by Afghanistan’s health ministry, up to 16 million of Afghanistan’s 31.7 million people might catch this disease, with possible deaths numbering in the "tens of thousands." The latest reports show 840 cases, 30  deaths and not a single test for the virus.

According to a recent World Bank report, the economic situation of almost all South Asian countries is going to stay extremely weak in the current year. For Afghanistan, this means an even deeper reliance on foreign aid. Already, the country depends for over 50 percent on foreign aid to fulfill its budgetary commitments.

However, in the wake of the ongoing political stalemate, in which both Ghani and Abdullah declared themselves victors in the September 2019 presidential election and held separate inaugurals, the US government has basically thrown up its hands. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a US$1 billion cut in aid. Alice Wells, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in the US State Department, recently said in a Twitter post that the international community, too, will have to re-think its aid policies.

To quote Wells: “It can’t be business as usual for international donors in Afghanistan. International aid requires partnership with an inclusive government and we all must hold Afghan leaders accountable to agree on a governing arrangement.” 

Even according to the World Bank assessment, titled “The World Bank in South Asia,” threats to Afghanistan’s economy are going to be multiple, ranging from reduced economic activity “due to border closures, reduced remittance flows, and economic disruptions associated with social distancing measures. Medium-term prospects remain highly vulnerable to political instability, worsening insecurity, and rapid declines in international grants.”

The report further adds that “Fiscal pressures will increase as international grants decline gradually over time and due to the short-term impacts of the Covid-19 virus. Under baseline projections, the fiscal deficit for 2020 is projected to widen to 2.9 percent of GDP from 1.1 percent in 2019.”

Furthermore, in the wake of the spread of the disease and the lack of sufficient health infrastructure, foreign troops currently stationed in Afghanistan will equally be hard-pressed, and the US might have to rethink its withdrawal strategy to help its forces escape becoming victims of the virus.

A change in the US withdrawal plan amid the outbreak would give the Taliban perfect timing to stage a military walk-over, which they are fully capable of doing. The Afghan government, politically divided as it is and economically hard-pressed as it will be for much of the time, would have few options. Such a situation would render the entire progress towards negotiated settlement meaningless, killing hopes for the march towards an inclusive polity.

An additional factor that might trigger an armed crisis would be the failure to timely release Taliban prisoners, most of whom have been put in the already overcrowded prisons. According to a 2019 report of the Asylum Research Center, Afghan prisons have not been sprayed for many years.

“According to some Pul-e-Charkhi prison officials, the building of this prison has been constructed for about 5,000 to 7,000 people,” the Asylum Research Center report says, “but according to the latest statistics, there are currently 10,392 inmates in the prison.”

In a country where most of the prisoners are Taliban fighters and commanders, the spread of the disease in the prisons and resultant deaths of Taliban fighters/commanders would have a further limiting impact on the peace process, adding to the already-deep trust deficit between Kabul and the Taliban.

This holds equally true of the prisoners held by the Taliban. It is unlikely that the Taliban-held areas have any capacity for tackling and checking the spread of Covid-19.

Whereas it is almost impossible to rapidly develop sufficient health infrastructure in Afghanistan, stakeholders, including both local and foreign actors, need to realize that the country might become another epicenter of disease and resultant armed conflict for control of political power, taking the country back to square one. The sooner this is realized, the better for Afghanistan and other stakeholders, particularly its immediate neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, and Russia/Central Asia.