This is a special analysis report series, released by Peace News Network, to investigate how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting conflict zones around the world.
Since the first known case of COVID-19 crossed from Iran to Afghanistan in mid-February 2020, Afghanistan has been battling both the pandemic and violence from both the Taliban and the Afghan national security forces have disrupted its already weak healthcare infrastructure. As of late-August, 2020, Afghanistan had 38,070 COVID-19 cases and 1,397 deaths , although a study suggests that this figure is a low estimate of the actual spread of the disease.
The UN’s global call for a ceasefire during the COVID-19 crisis was largely ignored in Afghanistan, despite the government’s endorsement of it. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s (UNAMA) Special Report identified multiple instances of attacks against healthcare facilities and personnel shortly after the call, from March 11 to May 23. Although this period followed the “Reduction in Violence” week which led to the US-Taliban agreement, UNAMA actually documented increased violence. The report identified 15 specific attacks that targeted healthcare facilities or personnel. The majority of the attacks were deliberate and attributed to the Taliban, however, three attacks were conducted by the Afghan national forces. These attacks from both sides included abductions of healthcare workers, airstrikes around healthcare clinics, and looting of medical supplies.
May 23, the end of the UNAMA report and the end of Ramadan, was also the start of a three-day ceasefire between the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan. Initiated by the Taliban, the government welcomed the three-day ceasefire over Eid al-Fitr. The ceasefire raised hopes for reduced violence but the temporary truce did not hold.
The ceasefire also occurred in the middle of continued peace talks between the U.S., the Government of Afghanistan, and the Taliban. The Joint Declaration made on February 29, 2020 has allowed for continued intra-Afghanistan dialogue. The February deal included a phased withdrawal of American troops and the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners, of which the Afghan government held 400 until early-August. Although the government acquiesced to the prison release, the future of the peace talks are still uncertain. Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, stated that “the Kabul government [seems] to be holding out for a Biden presidency” before it proceeds in the peace talks.
Although all parties are still participating in the peace talks, intra-Afghanistan violence may threaten to undermine the future of this dialogue. Violence has increased as 1,690 people were killed by conflict in the month of June, the most of other conflict-fragile states while peace talks continued between the U.S. and the Taliban.
Continued violence in Afghanistan has further stressed its humanitarian crisis. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states that there has been a 20% increase in people in need of humanitarian assistance, from 6.3 million in 2019 to 9.4 million. This was compounded by heightened food insecurity as the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan closed. The day after the border closure, food prices jumped by 30% and prices for staple foods have continued to increase. Additionally, Afghanistan has about 5.5 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). This vulnerable population is especially at risk during the pandemic as humanitarian groups’ operations have slowed down due to the pandemic. Finally, Afghanistan is estimated to require $733 million in recovery assistance, of which about 5% has been currently funded.
Although Afghanistan has faced multiple challenges with COVID-19, continuing violence, and an increasing humanitarian crisis, its healthcare system has not yet been overwhelmed by the pandemic. The Afghan government and the Taliban have both been distributing personal protective equipment in their respective districts of control. Although the pandemic continues to be a threat, COVID-19 has been manageable in the country thus far.