International experts call for Afghan unity to fight COVID-19

Monitoring Desk

KABUL: Even the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations are struggling in their response to the coronavirus pandemic, but the especially desperate situation in Afghanistan, which requires dealing with COVID-19 amid a high frequency of military attacks, is causing alarm among international organizations, diplomats and experts.

This past week a Western security source shared information with TOLOnews showing that already in multiple Afghan provinces fighting is happening alongside the spread of COVID-19 cases (See list below). Efforts to treat and prevent the spread of the disease will be difficult, if not impossible, in the midst of the fighting, a fact acknowledged by the United Nations in statements applying to conflicts around the globe, and Afghanistan specifically.

Compounding the crisis in Afghanistan is the rift between the government factions of President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, which poses an enormous obstacle in the path to peace with the Taliban–or any other effort requiring a unified government response.

Immense pressure has been added to the situation with this week’s announcement by the US of a $1 billion aid-cut, enacted explicitly because of the Afghan government’s failure to form an inclusive government. President Ghani responded to the announcement by saying that it wouldn’t affect key sectors, but rival Abdullah Abdullah announced that leaders should not speak in “irresponsible” ways about a reduction in aid that will certainly have an impact on the country.

One expert who has spoken out about the crisis in Afghanistan is Barnett R. Rubin, the director of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Project and associate director at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

In a recent op-ed published by, and also TOLOnews, Rubin wrote that along with US aid cut to the Afghan economy, the COVID-19 pandemic may also decrease the capability and willingness of the US and other donor nations to continue providing aid in the future. Rubin stressed the dire need for political unity with the Afghan government, a ceasefire between the Taliban and pro-government forces in order to deal with the coronavirus, and for the continued aid of the US to Afghanistan. He also warned that Afghanistan and it’s regional allies need to come together because continued US aid cannot be counted on.

“The United States’ worsening economic problems [because of the coronavirus] will only reinforce Washington’s temptation to make more cutbacks. The impact on Afghanistan of coronavirus in the United States may rival or exceed that of the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. In both cases, an economic crisis hit the Afghan state’s major patron at the very moment when Kabul was navigating a fragile peace process. To understand the dangers Afghanistan now faces, it’s worth remembering what happened 30 years ago,” writes Rubin.

Rubin compares the present situation to the time when Afghanistan was under Soviet-backed leader Dr. Mohammad Najibullah: “The withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 was not the main reason for the collapse of the government of the ex-communist President Mohammad Najibullah in April 1992. But it was the collapse of the foreign aid and natural gas exports that together paid for a third of the government budget, that ultimately made the difference.”

Rubin notes that today Afghanistan is even more dependent on foreign aid than it was at the end of the Soviet period, stating that the economy of the United States—which is now Afghanistan’s principal patron—is also suffering a downturn of unforeseeable duration and dimensions.

“The amount of money needed to keep Afghanistan solvent is miniscule compared to the funds to be injected into the contracting US economy. Americans who appreciate how interdependent the international social order has become must try to save as many of these expenditures as possible, but they will probably fail—even if Ghani and Abdullah manage to reach some kind of agreement on how to govern Afghanistan. Afghans and their neighbors must therefore start planning for the rapid decline of aid and other foreign capital. The consequences could include inflation; food scarcity and shortages of other essential commodities; even higher unemployment, especially among educated youth; and 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,” he wrote.

On the US and NATO presence in Afghanistan, Rubin says: “As long as US and NATO troops remain in Afghanistan, Afghan military and security services are likely to continue receiving foreign funding. But the opposite is also true: Cuts in funding to Afghan forces will likely accelerate the withdrawal of foreign troops. The continuation of that funding will depend on both an agreement between Ghani and Abdullah and the implementation of the framework of the US-Taliban peace process.

He urges the Afghan government not to delay the peace process by any means, stating that “every day that passes without the release of prisoners or the start of intra-Afghan negotiations provides a chance for additional violence—such as a March 20 Taliban attack that killed 25 Afghan police and soldiers in a pre-dawn raid.

Rubin warns that the COVID-19 pandemic will inevitably have a direct impact on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, which is the main goal of both the Taliban and US President Donald Trump.

On the consequences of a complete drawdown of foreign troops and aid cut, Rubin said: “A complete drawdown of US aid and military support for the Afghan government could well lead the country to collapse.” He noted that no one in today’s Afghanistan celebrates the fall of the Najibullah government, which led to the collapse of the state and the metastasis of war:

“If all sides of the current Afghan conflict understand that such an outcome is likely once more, and that there will be no return to normalcy, they might think more seriously about concessions to cease hostilities for humanitarian reasons, and work together to maintain order and minimal social services, above all public health,” wrote Rubin.

He also warned that the US will face some repercussions, if it abandoned Afghanistan. He said that other regional players such as Russia will take center stage if the US leave Afghanistan alone.

“If the US abandons the peace process, US fears of great-power competition could become real. Russia had previously started a “Moscow process,” which convened the Afghan government, the Taliban, and regional powers. If the United States cuts off aid and withdraws from Afghanistan, Russia could restart its initiative with the support of China, Pakistan, and Iran, as well as of much of the Afghan political elite,” Rubin said.

Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat who is the former UN Special Representative to the Secretary-General in Afghanistan, also raised his voice about the current crisis in an op-ed published on TOLOnews on Saturday, calling for President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah to come together and put aside their “egos” and work for the welfare of the nation.

“Afghanistan is not well-equipped to handle the pandemic – after years of war, widespread poverty and a weak health service,” Eide wrote.

“This is a moment that will define the place of politicians in history. It is now that all will shape their legacy. That applies to Afghanistan more than most other countries. Afghanistan could be facing a catastrophe – on top of a war that has already exhausted its people. There is an urgent need for a response, where politicians stand together to face their common enemy,” said Eide.

He calls on Ghani and Abdullah to act. “The two main political rivals – President Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah – have to make a fundamental choice: Do they want to be remembered as politicians, who placed their own egos at the center of their attention when the nation was standing on the brink of yet another disaster? Or do they prefer to be remembered as statesmen, who placed the well-being of their people above their own stubbornness? Will they be able to respond to the needs of their population and unite in an inclusive government? This pandemic will require all their energy and wisdom. It will require the mobilization of human and financial resources. Do not waste precious time!”

“My appeal goes beyond the political elite in Kabul. Afghanistan is facing a deadly virus – in the middle of a deadly war,” he said.

This follows an appeal issued on Monday by UN Secretary-General António Guterres urging warring parties across the world to lay down their weapons in support of the bigger battle against COVID-19, the common enemy that is now threatening all of humankind.

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war”, he said, “that is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

“The ceasefire would allow humanitarians to reach populations that are most vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19, which first emerged in Wuhan, China, last December, and has now been reported in more than 180 countries,” Guterres said.

On Saturday the Afghan government decided to lockdown the Afghan capital city of Kabul, with an estimated population of six million, due to the coronavirus outbreak. The lockdown will begin Saturday and will continue for at least three weeks.

The Ministry of Public Health on Friday evening reported 15 new cases of the coronavirus in the country, including 11 new cases in Herat, three in Farah and one in Ghazni province, bringing the national total to 110, including two foreign diplomats and four service members in the Resolute Support Mission. But despite the spread of COVID-19, fighting is continuing.

The information below provided by a Western security source to TOLOnews is notable because it shows that positive coronvirus cases are being reported in the same areas as the fighting, and that Herat, currently with the most cases of COVID-19 because of its border with virus epicenter Iran, also had the highest number of attacks in the measured time period. (TOLOnews)