Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Apr 14, 2020
Opportunity in Crisis: Will a pandemic lead to peace with the Taliban in Afghanistan? 

With hundreds of thousands of migrant workers returning from Iran, Afghanistan’s poor healthcare facilities, the prevalence of diabetes, as well as widespread food insecurity, make the country highly vulnerable to coronavirus. On top of the obvious health implications, the pandemic seems set to arrive at a time of deep uncertainty over Afghanistan’s future political trajectory and the future role of the Taliban. As the Afghan government faces a range of economic, political and military threats, the pandemic’s spread across the country at first glance seems likely to further strengthen the Taliban’s negotiating position in the process of securing a political resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan.

The Taliban will be able to use the pandemic to demonstrate its readiness for government: in the same manner as criminal gangs are policing a lockdown in Brazilian slums, the Taliban will demonstrate their reach vis-a-vis the government, particularly if they need to enforce social-distancing and quarantining measures in the districts under their control.

Further, the government’s inability to cope (however defined) will be exacerbated by already declining foreign aid, as well as pre-existing failings and shortfalls in public healthcare. An influx of returnees from Iran and Pakistan would create an additional emergency even if covid19 were not in the equation. Afghanistan has just a dozen working ventilators. If disaster ensues, and the country does not succeed in sourcing more equipment, the government’s position would surely be weakened. Given the on-going disagreements between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan government is already in a precarious position.

There are numerous examples of poor response to natural disasters causing negative outcomes for governments. Most notably in Afghanistan’s neighbourhood, the creation of Bangladesh, in 1971, was at least partly generated by the poor response of the Pakistan government to a cyclone the previous year.

If the pandemic does turn out to strengthen the Taliban, however, this will probably stem less from the intra-Afghan dynamics themselves than because of reduced financial support for the Afghan government. The US was already cutting support to Afghanistan, and given the likely economic hit the pandemic is likely to cause to other supporters of the Afghan government, including countries such as India, it is not difficult to envisage a scenario in which the Afghan government is cast adrift.

And yet, if the Afghan government’s response is lacking, that would not reflect a lack of desire and would, in part, stem from on-going conflict with the Taliban – not least because Afghanistan’s security budget to fight the Taliban insurgency forms the lion’s share of its overall spending.

While eminently feasible, other outcomes are possible. While 9/11 may have dramatically changed the situation in Afghanistan, much was written about how it would change individual’s behaviour: for a few months following 9/11, airline passenger numbers fell dramatically. Acres of newspaper space were filled suggesting that this was a gamechanger. Holidays would be taken at home, and video conferencing would replace meetings in person.

While there was a significant reconfiguration of counter-terrorism, securitisation of borders and US-led securitisation of international affairs, air travel subsequently rebounded dramatically.  The main outcome of 9/11 for air travel was, arguably, increased security at airports rather than changed consumer behaviour.

In the case of Afghanistan, potentially the pandemic will simply confirm what was already known. That Afghanistan has poor healthcare facilities and that the government is lacking in capacity is in the public domain. At the same time, even if it may be surprising to see the Taliban donning protective medical equipment, few Afghans would trust them to deliver better medical outcomes than the Ministry of Public Health. The pandemic is unlikely to change either the legitimacy of or the level of public support for the Taliban.

Conversely, there are examples of natural disasters having positive impacts on conflict zones. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami eventually led to the resolution of a long-running independence campaign in the Indonesian province of Aceh. More recently, and less substantively, in recent weeks, India and Pakistan have reinitiated some degree of dialogue regarding a plague of locusts followed by plague itself. Rather than taking advantage of lost opportunities, regional cooperation seems easier driven in response to shared threats.

There are reasons for the Taliban to seek cooperation rather than conflict. Despite a common focus on government weakness, improved relations, in particular with Afghanistan’s northern neighbours, have enabled continued food supplies. In addition to widespread action against racketeering, the government appears to have prevented food shortages which could have exacerbated the impact of the pandemic. There is evidence of government intervention in the eastern city of Jalalabad and elsewhere, to prevent price gouging – although panic buying and fear of a shutdown of shops have impacted the prices of basic food items.

Furthermore, all of Afghanistan’s major hospitals are in government-controlled areas. In Taliban-controlled areas, at the district level, by and large it is the Ministry of Public Health – not the Taliban – that staffs and operates health facilities. This is in part a reflection of the vertical structure of the Ministry: a large number of hospitals are situated in Kabul (including private hospitals), provincial capitals and some at the district level. Since no provincial capital or urban area is controlled by the Taliban, hospitals have largely remained in government-controlled population centres.

The Afghan government - in coordination with international partners such as the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and the World Bank – is driving the country-wide information campaign and planning to fight covid19. A grant of US$100.4m from the World Bank is supposed to be allocated to all the 34 provinces. Meanwhile, the national broadcaster, RTA, and private media channels (mostly Kabul-based) are relaying official guidelines on the pandemic. Social media campaigns have seen celebrities, cricketers, politicians and artists reinforcing official messaging on social distancing – and pleading with Afghans to take the pandemic seriously. It is making a difference in urban areas in raising awareness levels.

While the Taliban may well currently see the pandemic as an opportunity to appear to be a government-in-waiting, for most Afghans the parallels with Aceh seem more salient than those with Bangladesh. The pandemic provides an opportunity for the country to finally find a greater enemy than each other to fight against. It is true that for a generation the war, poverty and displacements have pushed many Afghans to pursue daily survival as a coping mechanism. Paradoxically, the current pandemic may turn into a convergence of that coping strategy for all Afghans. If the Taliban and Afghan government could see their survival in fighting covid19, as opposed to fighting each other, it is possible that Afghans may finally witness a cessation of violence.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Gareth Price

Gareth Price

Gareth Price is a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House leading research on South Asia. He was previously an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit ...

Read More +
Hameed Hakimi

Hameed Hakimi

Hameed Hakimi is a research associate in the Asia-Pacific Programme and the Europe Programmeat Chatham House. Prior to joining Chatham House in 2013 he held ...

Read More +