Afghanistan’s peace process is in danger of unravelling

The COVID-19 crisis and the Ghani-Abdullah dispute could bring down the fragile peace in the country.

Afghanistan''s President Ashraf Ghani
Afghanistan''s President Ashraf Ghani (R) and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pose for a photo during their meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan on March 23, 2020 [Reuters]

Those of us who witnessed United States officials and Taliban representatives shake hands on February 29, 2020, were inspired by the political will for peace that we witnessed. Yet many of us have also recognised the inevitable difficulties in implementing the agreement concluded in Doha. But what we could not have anticipated was the two crises which would simultaneously threaten to derail the entire Afghan peace process: the Afghan presidential election dispute and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

So far, Afghanistan has registered 170 cases of COVID-19 and four deaths. While these numbers are low compared with what is reported from the worst-affected countries such as Italy, Spain, Iran, and the United States, given the limited testing capacity in Afghanistan, it is feared that the true scope of the outbreak is much bigger. 

Afghanistan’s health system is also underdeveloped and unable to cope with a large-scale pandemic. There are persistent problems with water, sanitation and hygiene and many Afghans live in communally shared, crowded spaces. This means that self-isolation, social distancing, and hygiene measures will be less effective.

Some may point out that Afghanistan’s geography and the extreme isolation of some communities will likely slow down the spread of COVID-19. While that may help, there is an increasing flow of Afghan refugees departing Iran and returning to provinces across the country, which could accelerate the spread of the virus.

Since late February, almost 100,000 of the three million Afghans living in Iran have travelled home, with around 15,000 crossing on a daily basis in March, in spite of Afghan government pleas to Tehran to close the border. While the February 29 agreement between the US and the Taliban has likely encouraged some Afghan refugees to return, the large-scale movement is driven more by the spread of the coronavirus in Iran and the severe economic crisis, exacerbated by the US policy of maximum pressure.

Those Afghan refugees are returning to a country gridlocked by a political crisis, with President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah stuck in a dispute over the results of the September 28 presidential election. Both leaders have held separate presidential inauguration ceremonies threatening to split the country.

Amid the crisis, on March 23, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a damning statement, expressing the US disappointment by the failure of the Afghan leadership to reach an agreement. Considering this “to poses a direct threat to US national interests”, Pompeo announced a reduction of US spending in Afghanistan by $1bn this year and $1bn in 2021. This move is intended to put pressure on Ghani and Abdullah to put aside their differences and form a unity government.

Yet if this strategy proves ineffective, there is a real risk of a collapse of political order in Kabul, as the Afghan state is deeply dependent on foreign aid, which accounts for 40 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

The crisis could be compounded by an early withdrawal of US and NATO troops. Four NATO service members who recently arrived in Afghanistan have tested positivefor coronavirus; and given fears of a major outbreak in the country, Western allies may decide to pull their troops out ahead of the schedule set by the US-Taliban agreement. 

The rapid scaling down of the foreign military presence in Afghanistan could precipitate a major security vacuum and encourage the Taliban to break the agreement and escalate their military campaign again. It is also likely to enable even more attacks by the Islamic State in Khorasan. On March 25, its fighters laid an hours-long siege on a Sikh religious complex in Kabul, killing 25 people.

The coronavirus outbreak could also affect efforts to push forward intra-Afghan talks by foreign mediators. Face-to-face negotiations will likely cease as they bring risks to all those involved.

Furthermore, while the intra-Afghan talks to be effective should be as inclusive as possible, consulting at all levels of Afghan society, if the peace process does indeed proceed then it will likely be confined to a very narrow, top-down negotiation between an Afghan negotiating team and the Taliban. 

There are, however, reasons for cautious optimism.

Intra-Afghan negotiations continue, albeit not in the form imagined just a few weeks ago. On March 22, Qatar and the US facilitated technical talks addressing prisoner releases between the Afghan government and the Taliban via Skype. This demonstrates that the coronavirus has not brought diplomacy to a complete halt.

The seriousness and intensity with which Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad have engaged with the Afghan political crisis and faltering peace process over the past weeks, conducting many face-to-face meetings at the start of a global lockdown, also shows that more traditional forms of diplomacy will continue out of necessity.

It is also conceivable that the coronavirus could help establish further forms of cooperation between the Afghan government and the Taliban. For this to happen, the Taliban must first accept reality: the virus will spread to all of Afghanistan and will affect all Afghans, regardless of faith, political allegiance and ethnicity.

By working together with all parties to combat coronavirus, the Taliban could show the world that it can conduct itself as a responsible power-sharing partner in any post-settlement Afghanistan.

The Taliban have made tentative steps in the right direction on this front: they have reconciled with the International Committee of the Red Cross and restored security guarantees for its personnel. It is high time to do the same in all areas they control and allow in emergency health responders.

So far, the Taliban have been hedging their bets on US President Donald Trump’s urgent need for a diplomatic victory in an election year. 

In the context of the current pandemic, the Taliban need to understand that if Trump is pushed too far, he could decide that money spent in Afghanistan is better spent at home and under emergency legislation withdraw all US forces. 

While the Taliban may initially perceive this to be a victory, it would be a pyrrhic one. A security vacuum will not pave the way for the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; it will only plunge the country into long and bloody conflict.

Rather than exploit the gridlock in Kabul to advance militarily, the Taliban should maintain their reduction in violence and assist in a united front against the Islamic State

The Taliban should heed the call of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for a global ceasefire and ensure a level of stability in Afghanistan so the country has a better chance in combatting and containing the outbreak.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.