Migration, urban density, poverty, and the ongoing conflict mean that Afghanistan is uniquely placed to experience potentially catastrophic numbers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Afghan government, backed by calls from the international community, has requested a ceasefire. The Taliban has rejected this request and continued to engage in offensive violence.
A ceasefire is necessary to give all Afghans the best possible chance of defeating their common enemy: COVID-19. But there are limitations. Ceasefires represent an emergency stop-gap in moving toward real, sustainable progress for either of the two greatest issues facing the country now: pandemic and peace.
The novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, has impacted Afghanistan as it has much of the world. The official figures of infections and death almost certainly represent a vast underestimate of the scale of the problem, with testing capacity poor and official data collection hampered by a variety of circumstances, not least the ongoing and active conflict. High profile incidents such as the infection of U.S. military staff in Kabul or the positive test results of senior officials close to the president combine with anecdotal evidence from around the country that the virus is widespread and threatens to exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities faced by many Afghans.
This new threat arrives at an inopportune moment in the course of Afghanistan’s conflict. With a disputed presidential election having weakened Ashraf Ghani’s government at a time when it had already been largely excluded from the U.S.-Taliban agreement, any hopes that the proposed intra-Afghan dialogue would produce significant positive change were tentative. With the emergence of a public health crisis, ongoing fighting seems more counterproductive than ever. As calls for a ceasefire were rejected by the Taliban, commentators expressed dismay.
But this focus risks framing a ceasefire as a solution rather than an emergency measure. We know that ceasefires without a process, a dialogue, or a mutually trusted arbiter do not hold. A ceasefire to allow for more focus on the immediate health crisis Afghanistan would be an improvement, but absent parallel efforts towards something more sustainable, its impact would likely be limited.
Afghanistan faces a dual crisis: conflict and COVID-19. Fortunately, what peace processes often require is not too indistinct from what effective public health responses require. The approaches share certain aspects. Done correctly, they should have significant overlap: an honest and detailed assessment of the problems, the resources to address it, and, crucially, a transparent good faith collaboration with a range of diverse partners.
The coronavirus in Afghanistan has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the influx of Afghans from neighboring countries that have been heavily affected. The border with Iran, one of the worst hit countries on earth, was still open to up to 15,000 people crossing daily as late as April. Herat province, which is adjacent to this border, is predictably one of the worst affected areas. But as the peace process falters perhaps Afghans could look across that same border for one relevant recent lesson in negotiation.
During the intense and often fractious negotiations between the U.S. and Iran in the run up to the the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), one of the things that helped both sides reach a settlement was the explicit agreement of the things they were there to negotiate. The things on the table were clear and defined (namely sanctions relief in exchange for freezing of Iran’s nuclear programme). Whatever diplomatic struggles existed outside of that negotiation between the two countries, from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ provocative missile tests to the State Department’s perceived continuing destabilization of the region, the negotiators knew they were outside the scope of the discussions. Arguably it was this that allowed for the successful conclusion of those negotiations and an agreement that, were it not for a dramatic change of U.S. foreign policy that accompanied the Trump administration, could have served as a foundation for future, wider talks between the two countries.
The spirit of that explicit demarcation of issues could serve as a template for what comes next in Afghanistan. A ceasefire, accompanied by dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban limited to specific immediate areas of cooperation, specifically public health policy and humanitarian response, could serve the public interest in more effectively dealing with the pandemic while at the same time building trust towards a future, wider set of discussions.
Equally, a ceasefire, as desirable as one is in the short term, is unlikely to hold or to lead to many long-term gains on either COVID-19 response or the peace process if treated as an achievement in and of itself. Underneath, the existing issues that drive conflict will remain. In Afghanistan, these issues are deep, complex, and diverse. Local conflicts, from family level up, often define the context in different parts of the country and deep divisions remain across ideological, tribal and other lines. None of these will be addressed by a ceasefire.
A ceasefire is a means to a more effective healthcare system that protects Afghan people from the worst effects of the pandemic and to a longer lasting, sustainable, and inclusive conversation about the future of the country. Without these accompanying factors the value of a ceasefire is limited only to the immediate and temporary cessation of violence.
In a time when countries are looking inwards and are predisposed with domestic concerns, it is important that we still advocate for an international community that supports responsibly the most at-risk countries.
In Afghanistan, it is right that we support calls for a ceasefire but also that we recognize that however important a cessation of violence it is, it is on its own an inadequate measure to address the challenges the country is about to face.
Ben Francis is an Afghanistan expert at peacebuilding organization International Alert.