A "coronised" Afghan peace process

Opinion piece published in Daily The News, April 12, 2020  

Will Covid-19 overwhelm the struggling Afghan state as politicians squabble over power?

With 450 verified cases, Covid-19 has become the latest adversary to affect the war-weary Afghan nation.

The fragile gains made through the Taliban-US peace deal in Doha now depend upon the fate of a prisoner swap agreement between the government in Kabul and the Taliban.

The dire condition of the state and private institutions is well-known, especially when it comes to governance, education, health facilities and mechanisms of raising awareness among Afghans about the pandemic.

According to the Afghan Health Ministry, the coronavirus might infect up to 25 million of the country’s 35.5 million population. Over the last two months, more than 115,000 Afghans have returned from Iran through Herat province. None of them was kept in quarantine or tested for Covid-19. This is alarming. Keeping in mind the condition of Pakistanis who returned from Iran, it is highly likely that some of the Afghan citizens have also brought the virus with them.

In the absence of urgent measures to arrest the spread of the virus, this can cause the collapse of Afghanistan’s fragile healthcare infrastructure. Currently, there are two million Afghans living in Iran. Given the high unemployment caused by the pandemic, a large proportion of them are expected to return to their home country over the coming days.

Meanwhile, the Afghan political scene looks explosive. For one, there is the rivalry between President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah. Both are preoccupied with strengthening their political clout by enlisting the loyalties of more and more political stalwarts. The appointment of Hanif Atmar as Afghan foreign minister should also be seen in the background. However, the Afghan politicians appear to be ignoring their biggest enemy: Covid-19.

The signing of Doha Peace Accord between the Taliban and the United States was a monumental shift in the global and domestic political scenario. It comes as no surprise that the accord, though a pivotal step in the international dimension, is already being viewed with an air of skepticism by the Afghan people.

Looking at the history of bland precedents in the peace process, it looks like another ‘prank call’. However, such skepticism could be premature as the US-Taliban deal does hold the potential to improve the situation.

The deal requires that the Afghan government free 5,000 Taliban prisoners in return for 1,000 hostages held by the Taliban. It is seen as the key that will determine whether the latest accord succeeds or fails to bring peace.

However, the Covid-19 has already changed the situation. An important question now is whether the two sides will be able to swap the prisoners before they catch the infection.

Conditions in Afghanistan’s prison have already been a cause of concern. The prisoners are at a high risk of getting infected in the overcrowded prisons. Such a development will further aggravate the situation.

Given the crowding in Afghan prisons, there is no way of ensuring social distancing or following health guidelines. The prisoners as well prison staff are therefore vulnerable to the disease. According to an ARC Foundation report on Afghan prisons, it has been years since any insecticide was sprayed in the prisons. Prisoners live in poorly ventilated cells that are always crowded. The Shebarghan Prison, for one, houses five times the prisoners it was designed for. Most of the prisoners are Taliban. It will be impossible under the circumstances to contain Covid-19 spread in the jails. Death of even a few political prisoners, either in the custody of Kabul regime or with Taliban insurgents, will be a disaster for the nascent peace process.

In most parts of the world, panic-stricken governments have too much at their hands to still pay any attention to the Afghan situation. This is true especially of Pakistan and the US. Kabul must now take urgent action and empty its prisons as soon as possible. This situation is highly volatile given the trust deficit between the government and the Taliban. Even deaths from natural factors might spark suspicion of deliberate neglect of the prisoners.

On the other hand, the poor health facilities are a grave reflection on Afghanistan’s socio-political conditions. For decades now seriously ill Afghans have relied on Peshawar’s various public and private sector hospitals. However, Pakistan and its borders are under a lockdown right now.

Afghanistan’s shattered economy makes a timely investment health services very unlikely. Only one hospital in Western Kabul is currently testing patients for coronavirus. Many of those testing positive have fled the quarantine centres set up to isolate them from their communities.

Most of the foreign-funded non-government organizations (NGOs) are already evacuating their international staff. The intransigent attitude of President Ghani and Dr Abdullah has added to the confusion and distrust in Kabul. In monetory terms, it has resulted in a $1 billion reduction in the US annual aid to the country. This is a further threat to the already feeble Afghan healthcare infrastructure.

While the air of distrust persists between the government and the governed, it is important to resolve the internal political divisions as soon as possible. This might facilitate the prisoner exchange. If it is not handled well, it will not only affect the health of the masses but also expose the peace process to yet another reason for failure.

Death of prisoners due to coronavirus on either side will result in widening the trust deficit. It will also loosen Kabul's grip on the government. Haste should be made, for a lack of action in this regard will only add to the slow and gradual demise of the peace process, public health and eventually President Ashraf Ghani’s political writ. Every country in the world is struggling to overcome coronavirus. However, for Afghanistan the stakes are even higher.

The author is the director of Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in the University of Peshawar, Pakistan. He can be reached at shaheed@uop.edu.pk