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Afghanistan: War in the Time of Coronavirus

Despite a peace deal and the devastating spread of COVID-19, the Afghan war sill rages on.

Ezzatullah Mehrdad
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Afghanistan: War in the Time of Coronavirus
Credit: U.S. State Department Photo

“It is a warzone, so coronavirus does not come here,” an Afghan solider, who serves in Ghazni, joked. “When it comes, we will hit it by cannon.”

You cannot shoot the coronavirus, target it with explosives, or dispatch a suicide bomber to hit it. Yet even while the invisible enemy, COVID-19, is spreading fast in Afghanistan, so is the war.

Since the United States signed a deal with the Taliban on February 29, the war has concentrated on rural areas of the country, away from public attention. In addition to sucking up massive amounts of resources, both human and financial, the continued conflict leaves Afghan service members stuck on the frontlines, where they cannot practice the social distancing necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“They [the Taliban] have to cooperate and they have to come forward and they have to understand the gravity of the situation,” said Waheed Omar, advisor to President Ashraf Ghani. “For once, they should join [together] for the humanitarian cause. But I don’t think they understand either the gravity of the situation or value the issue of humanitarian assistance.”

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for a global humanitarian ceasefire to combat COVID-19, including in Afghanistan. Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Yousef A. Al-Othaimeen appealed twice for a ceasefire. American and European diplomats have called on the Taliban to announce a ceasefire. Even President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan called for a ceasefire during Ramadan, a holy month for Muslims.

Despite international humanitarian calls for a ceasefire that would allow the government and the Taliban to join forces to handle the pandemic, the Taliban continue attacking Afghanistan’s security forces on different fronts, mostly in rural areas. The Taliban has refused to announce a ceasefire, but said it will stop fighting in areas where the virus has infected the population.

The Taliban blame the Afghan government for violating the U.S.-Taliban agreement, which Kabul was not a party to, by not freeing 5,000 Taliban prisoners and by conducting attacks in non-combat areas. The United States and the Afghan government have said those attacks were conducted to defend Afghan forces.

The Afghan government has already released hundreds of prisoners; so have the Taliban. The current impasse focuses on the release of 15 specific Taliban prisoners. The government says that the 15 were behind deadly attacks, including one bombing that killed nearly 150 civilians in Kabul. The Taliban does not accept the accusation.

“The Taliban remains a primarily conflict-driven organization,” said Andrew Watkins, senior analyst on Afghanistan at Crisis Group. “It is a militant insurgent movement, and while it has devoted time and effort to building up its civilian shadow governance commissions, the record shows that if there is ever a debate within the movement’s command structure, the military interests take priority.”

The derailed peace efforts come amid a growing pandemic that urgently requires cooperation from both sides in order to devote maximum efforts to containing the virus. Instead, the country now faces Taliban attacks and the pandemic at the same time. According to a report from NBC News, that has only increased U.S. President Donald Trump’s desire to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country. “Trump complains almost daily that U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan and are now vulnerable to the pandemic,” Carol E. Lee and Courtney Kube wrote, citing current and former U.S. senior officials.

The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan documented that 533 civilians, including 150 children, were killed in first quarter of 2020. There was “a disturbing increase in violence during March at a time when it was hoped that the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban would commence peace negotiations, as well as seek ways to defuse the conflict and prioritize efforts to protect all Afghans from the impact of COVID-19,” said UNAMA.

The COVID-19 outbreak “was an occasion and an opportunity to join all hands, stop killing brothers in this country and fight against the virus together,” said Colonel Baser, who has been serving in the Afghan security forces for 10 years. “But unfortunately, the adversary [Taliban] continues shedding blood and killing brothers.”

Last week in Badghis province, where Colonel Baser serves, Taliban fighters assaulted a unit of Public Uprisings, killing 13 members of the unit, which is supported by the Afghan government.

The Taliban have launched an average of 50 attacks every day since the United States signed a deal with group on February 29, according to the Afghan National Security Council. What has changed since signing a deal with the U.S. is that the Taliban aren’t publicizing the causalities of Afghan forces as extensively on their social media pages, despite killing a record number of them. An average of 25 to 40 service members a day have been killed in Taliban attacks across the country over the last two weeks. Taliban casualties are higher than Afghan forces’ causalities on some days.

“The Taliban has made its priority clear, and that priority is continued application of violence,” said Watkins. “It has likely chosen this path in the hopes of leveraging the strongest possible deal in any future negotiations, as well as the need to keep its membership cohesive.”

As Afghan cities are in lockdown due to the spread of the coronavirus, the war has shifted into rural areas, where the strategic gains are made or lost. The Taliban attacks are aimed at district compounds and security outposts, while the Afghan forces rely on airstrikes and raids to defend themselves.

“We are fighting two viruses,” said Baser. “[The coronavirus] has not infected us yet, but fighting with the other virus, the Taliban, continues. Sometimes we lose forces, some other time we inflict causalities on them.”

As of April 30, the country had recorded 2,171 cases of COVID-19 and 63 deaths. With only 10,000 Afghans tested for the virus, the true number of positive cases could be much higher than official records. The virus is a slow-motion disaster coming into view, as Afghanistan lacks equipment and means to handle the pandemic.

War materiel — rifles, pistols, machine gun cartridges, hand grenades, rockets, shotgun slugs, mortar rounds, tank ammunition, and more — has cost Afghanistan millions of dollars. Those financial resources could have been used to purchase protective equipment, face masks, and ventilators to save lives from COVID-19.

Likewise, the human resources now devoted to war could be deployed to help Afghan healthcare workers in fight against the virus, as 158 medical personnel have been infected with the virus, according to the country’s health ministry. Instead, Afghan forces and Taliban fighters are deployed to fight each other, exposing them to the coronavirus.

In northern Faryab, where a dozen Afghan forces and civilians were killed in Taliban attacks, Governor Naqibullah Faiq claimed that a number of Taliban fighters, including some who were killed, were infected with COVID-19. In Kabul, officials confirmed that one police officer was infected by the virus.

It is not clear how the Taliban are handling the virus, but the Afghan forces have set up measures to prevent the spread of the virus within the ranks. The NATO support mission supplies Afghan forces with soap, gloves, eyeglasses, and disinfectant across the country, helping them protect themselves from the pandemic.

“The Defense Ministry established teams to fight the coronavirus within the Afghan forces,” said Fawad Aman, spokesperson for the Defense Ministry. “Every unit and place is disinfected and forces are regularly examined for the coronavirus.”

Colonel Baser, who commands a brigade, said that his troops are observing the quarantine. Service members avoid unnecessary movement, especially to public places such as bazaars and marketplaces. Barring an emergency, the forces stay in their units. Still, there are limit to social distancing amid a warzone.

“Soldiers are together in one trench, eat from one bowl, and live together,” said Baser. “It is not possible to isolate 100 or 200 soldiers of a company.”

The Afghan forces are vulnerable to COVID-19, as the country struggles to contain the virus in cities where dozen of cases are reported every day despite the low rate of testing. For two decades now, Afghan forces have been killed and wounded in a record number. The coronavirus opens a new front of ruthless war for them.

But for many on the frontlines, COVID-19 is a secondary enemy. “The fatality rate of Taliban virus is still much higher than the coronavirus,” said one Afghan solider.