With the Taliban abandoning peace talks with the government amid the rising pandemic in the country, Afghanistan will enter into possibly one of its darkest phases. To avoid the human catastrophe in the country, the international community at large mustn’t turn a blind eye towards Kabul at this juncture.

By Dr.Yatharth Kachiar

Amid the global pandemic, when the countries are fighting for their very survival, the war in Afghanistan is slowly simmering. On Tuesday, the Taliban directed their negotiating team to end the ongoing discussions with the Afghan government on ‘prisoner swap’. As stipulated in the troop withdrawal agreement signed by the US and the Taliban in February 2020, the prisoner swap was a necessary precondition to initiate the intra-Afghan talks. The decision by the insurgent group to end the negotiations has threatened to unravel the troop withdrawal agreement between the US and the Taliban. After initial resistance from the Afghan government, it was agreed that the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners will take place in phases. In the first phase, it was decided that 100 Taliban prisoners will be swapped for 20 members of Afghan security forces. To verify the identities of the prisoners, a technical team of the Taliban arrived in Kabul. However, the talks reached a deadlock over the insurgent’s demand of including 15 senior commanders convicted of major attacks in the first batch of prisoner release to help the Taliban team in the verification process of the rest of the 5,000 prisoners who had been expected to be released. According to reports, Afghan officials insisted that “they could not release the senior commanders now, but those commanders could participate in the verification process and then return to prison.”

In past few weeks, Afghanistan has seen increasing clashes among the government forces and the Taliban in provinces such as Nangarhar, Ghazni, Herat, Helmand, Zabul, Kunduz, Kandahar, Samangan, Balkh, Sar-e-Pul, Jawzjan, Faryab, Baghlan, Badghis, Logar and Ghor.  On 28 March, the Taliban regained the Yumgam district in Badakhshan province from the Afghan government. The district came under government control in September 2019 after being under the Taliban influence for four years. The peace efforts launched by the Afghan government and Afghan politicians who reconciled and agreed to form a 21-member negotiating team doesn’t have any impact on the Taliban’s determination of seeking power by gaining more territory. The violent attacks in Afghanistan have significantly increased after the signing of the withdrawal deal by the US and the Taliban in February 2020. The UNAMA expressed grave concern on the “record” number of civilian causalities which crossed over 100 since the signing of troop withdrawal deal in February 2020. It urged all the parties involved in the conflict to work towards protecting civilians by reducing the violence in the country and agreeing on a nation-wide comprehensive ceasefire. It explicitly stated that “the Taliban has been responsible for a high number of civilian casualties, mainly from non-suicide improvised explosive devices and targeted killings.”

Also, the country has seen a rise in attacks on minorities as indicated by the recent targeting of the Sikh community by Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) which killed 25 people. The incident exposed the fragile security situation in Afghanistan at a time when the conflict-ridden country is already reeling under US aid cut of 1 billion USD, raging insurgency, delicate political understanding, and mounting cases of COVID-19 pandemic. Previously, on 6 March 2020, ISKP attacked and killed more than 30 people in Kabul in a political gathering marking the death anniversary of Abdul Ali Mazari, an ethnic Hazara Shia leader killed in 1995 after being taken prisoner by the Taliban fighters. The religious minorities in Afghanistan are particularly vulnerable to such violent attacks not only by the Taliban, but also by other terrorist groups operating in the country such as ISKP, al-Qaida, Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. All these terrorist organisations, including the Taliban, operating inside Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan, share similar ideological disposition and strategic aim of unravelling the democratic order in the country to impose the clerical rule.

Further, in the backdrop of COVID-19 pandemic, the situation in Afghanistan has become more alarming because of the dependence of the Afghan economy on foreign aid. At present, the countries all over the globe, including the US, are grappling with the COVID-19 threat and a recession-hit economy. Therefore, it is more likely that many of Afghanistan’s traditional friends and donors may not have sufficient economic strength to continue providing the much-needed aid to the Afghan government. The political stalemate in the country between President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah has already pushed the US to cut USD 1 billion of aid to the Afghan government. According to reports, the planned USD 1 billion reduction in the US aid to Afghanistan is more likely to come from funds for Afghan security forces.

The US aid cut will hurt Afghanistan adversely since the country’s economy and public expenditure are heavily dependent on foreign aid. The US alone provides USD 4 billion in security aid and USD 500 million in civilian assistance every year to the Afghan government. Therefore, the aid cut by the US is a matter of grave concern for the Afghan leaders, especially when there is a more significant threat of COVID-19 pandemic in the country. Lack of funding might probably lead to the unravelling of the fragile administrative structure and the disintegration of a weary and overstretched security force. Afghanistan uses foreign aid not just to pay necessary expenses but also for its war against the resurgent Taliban. President Ghani has stated that the “Afghan army would not last more than six months if the United States cuts funding.” It is crucial to note that at the end of the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, the Moscow-backed government of Afghanistan collapsed because of lack of financial support from the international community.

The number of COVID-19 cases in the country has reached 423 out which more than 257 have come from Herat province bordering Iran.There is a possibility that the number of infected people could be much higher than the available figures because of the absence of capacity to detect the infection due to limited testing and slow spread of the virus. Apart from the raging war and foreign-aid dependent economy, what makes it difficult for Afghanistan to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic is the dire state of the country’s health infrastructure. Also, the high rate of illiteracy, lack of public health and hygiene awareness, a weak economy, fluid border, particularly with Pakistan and Iran makes Afghanistan more vulnerable. The social distancing in an overwhelmingly religious society of Afghanistan, where several generations of the family stay together, becomes a difficult task. To make matters worse, landlocked Afghanistan has been hit by a spike in prices of essential goods including food and medicines, as Pakistan closed the main supply route in mid-March as part of measures to contain its coronavirus pandemic. After opening border crossing between the Pakistani town of Chaman and Afghanistan’s Spin Boldak for two days on 21 March to allow the supply of essential items, Pakistan again sealed the border.

The recent reports suggest that during his travel to Afghanistan in March 2020, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had already threatened the Afghan leaders to reconcile their differences or risk a full American troop withdrawal. As the global pandemic worsens within Afghanistan, the concerns within the US Congress regarding the safety of the US troops will also rise. These trepidations could result in a premature withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan. In this regard, Afghanistan expert, Barnett Rubin observes, “the likelihood that the United States will sustain military forces in a pandemic-struck Afghanistan is near zero.” However, a complete withdrawal of military and economic aid from Afghanistan will lead to the collapse of the Afghan state itself, which, in turn, will have severe repercussions for the security and stability of the neighbouring countries. As an analyst argues, the consequences of such a scenario will be drastic. They could include “a massive exodus, as thousands of Afghans attempt to flee to the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, or elsewhere. The proportion of migrants infected with the coronavirus will increase exponentially.” To reaffirm India’s support and commitment towards Afghanistan, New Delhi began supplying various medical supplies such as surgical masks, gloves & sodium hydrochloride solution to Kabul. The cooperation on COVID-19 with Afghanistan started within days of PM Narendra Modi’s announcement of the creation of USD 10 million SAARC Emergency Fund to fight the pandemic. However, with the Taliban abandoning peace talks with the government amid the rising pandemic in the country, Afghanistan will enter into possibly one of its darkest phases. To avoid the human catastrophe in the country, the international community at large mustn’t turn a blind eye towards Kabul at this juncture.

The author is a Research Associate at VIF


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