By Alison O’Neil
Afghanistan in the Coronavirus Era
American news has covered Afghanistan for a number of reasons over the past six months, with coronavirus comprising the latest in a series of misfortunes. The December 2019 release of the Afghanistan Papers brought the American campaign into the public eye once again, just as the Trump administration has sought to extricate the US from a twenty-year quagmire. The coronavirus outbreak comes at an unfortunate time for the Afghan government, which is seeking stability amidst peace talks and a US withdrawal.
While at least 246 Afghans have died and over 13000 remain infected with the coronavirus, the pandemic has hardly put a stop to Afghanistan’s endemic violence. May 13 saw a deadly attack on a Doctors Without Borders maternity ward. The same day, a suicide attack—this one definitively carried out by ISIS—ripped through a funeral in Nangarhar province. More recently, gunmen attacked a mosque in Parwan province, killing at least seven. May’s attacks come on the heels of an equally bloody April. As Al Jazeera reports, the UN found the Taliban responsible for 208 civilian casualties in April, and Afghan security forces responsible for 172. Both of these death tolls came at a 25 and 38 percent increase from the death tolls of April 2019, respectively.
Will COVID-19 Usher in a Taliban Takeover?
The Afghanistan Papers emphasized that the Taliban, despite its reputation, often did a better job providing security for Afghan citizens than Kabul or US forces did. This was one major consideration in US COIN policy, as the corruption of the Afghan government coupled with the impermanence of the US presence drove civilians to rely on Taliban protection. Could the failure of the Afghan government to act promptly in response to COVID-19 have the same effect? As Foreign Policy points out, “Insurgents typically excel at exploiting state weaknesses and crises.” As such, they “only have to appear to be less incompetent and marginally more responsive to generate legitimacy.”
While the pandemic gives the Taliban a chance to create an illusion of legitimacy, the group likely has little ability to coordinate a large-scale pandemic response. As Foreign Policy puts it, “Violence limits access to health care, strains supply chains, and spurs health professionals to flee for safer areas … the disruption can be so severe that local health systems collapse.” According to Foreign Policy, many of the health interventions that the Taliban has supposedly enforced are more for show than for the sake of community health. One “thermometer gun,” for instance, turned out to be taped-together scrap wood and plastic. And while the Taliban has ostensibly declared a ceasefire in hard-hit areas, actual pandemic-related ceasefires have yet to be seen.
So, the question remains—will coronavirus hasten or delay a potential Taliban takeover? Not much research seems to exist on the links between insurgency and pandemics. Pandemics can have destabilizing effects on an international level, but intrastate effects are less clearly delineated. Disease can precipitate riots (Moscow’s plague riot of 1771; Liverpool’s cholera riot of 1832), but it is unclear whether it catalyzes long-term insurgencies or prolongs existing ones.
History might not offer much in the way of predictions, but contemporary developments offer some guidance. The Taliban has refused to declare a broad cease-fire amidst the pandemic, but other armed groups have promised to do so. Perhaps the Taliban’s resolve to continue fighting will break down if a critical mass of insurgents develops symptoms. Moreover, the temporary break in violence following Eid suggests that the Taliban isn’t necessarily unequivocally opposed to ceasefires.
COVID-19 ceasefires (or the lack thereof) aside, some experts have argued that a Taliban takeover is in the cards even without the influence of a pandemic. In a January 2019 interview, former diplomat Ryan Crocker expressed concern that negotiations focused too much on the Taliban while leaving a weakened Afghan government out of the picture. Crocker pointed out that while the early 1990s saw a variety of groups competing for power after the Soviet exit, the American withdrawal will leave behind only two factions: Ghani’s government and the Taliban. The latter, he argues, is no “kinder, gentler, or less dedicated” than it was two decades ago, and Ghani’s government might not be able to hold it off indefinitely. Even if the Taliban fails to provide large-scale pandemic aid, perhaps all it needs to secure power is a temporary boost in legitimacy. T. E. Lawrence wrote that “Rebellions can be made by 2% active in a striking force, and 98% passively sympathetic.” If the Taliban wins the support of the population, Ghani’s government—already weakened by infighting with rival politician Abdullah Abdullah—might never succeed in defeating it.
On the other hand, COVID-19 may offer the Afghan government and the Taliban a rare opportunity to cooperate. The state supports the Taliban’s local health interventions, which the Lowy Institute describes as “a stark contrast from other terrorist groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda, who have called Covid-19 a ‘divine retribution’ and have used the opportunity to mount attacks and recruit new followers.” Some analysts are skeptical of this view, though, and dismiss disaster-related Kantian peace as a rarity. With the Taliban leveling frequent attacks at the Afghan government even as the pandemic rages, this perspective certainly seems valid.
Implications for US Policy
The US has been mired in Afghan affairs since the 1980s, and Trump—with good reason—wants out. Policymakers must keep in mind, however, that pulling back in the midst of the pandemic may offer a window of opportunity for the Taliban—one that parallels the power vacuum that ushered in the insurgent group’s post-Soviet takeover. Aside from the Taliban’s appalling human rights record, the US has compelling security motives for keeping the group out of power. Not all experts agree, for instance, that the Taliban will remain unable or unwilling to harbor terrorist groups. As Crocker put it in 2019, “Given the fact that the Taliban made the choice in 2001 that they would face defeat on the battlefield rather than give up al Qaeda … does anybody really think the Taliban will be different this time?”
It is true that the main threat to US security—al Qaeda—has been largely wiped out in Afghanistan. As Martin Skold puts it, arguments that the US military must remain in Afghanistan to counter the threat of Sunni jihadism are “decade out of date.” Even so, Afghanistan remains a resource-rich nation bordered by strategically important states, and it would behoove the US to keep tabs on it after the military withdrawal. China’s interest in Afghanistan’s mineral resources alone warrants continued involvement from an intelligence perspective if not a direct military one. (As Skold points out, China would likely regard American military pullback as “a potential net negative,” as China “benefits from the diversion of the U.S. military’s attention away from the Pacific.”) As William Ruger argues, “maintaining our “intelligence capabilities” in Afghanistan will “alert us to legitimate threats” while permitting a broader military drawdown.
As the US military begins its “pivot” towards air-sea battle capabilities and away from COIN, Afghanistan runs a greater risk of being “forgotten” than it has in decades. The US must see the pandemic through, demonstrating its commitment to Afghanistan through economic aid and consistent, public support for Ghani’s government. As the United States’ pledge to provide millions in COVID-19 aid to Pakistan shows, the pandemic offers the US an opportunity to show its support through “mask diplomacy” in Central Asia. Moreover, as Ruger argues, support from countries with a “shared interest in ensuring Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups don’t use Afghanistan as a staging ground” may deter the Taliban from harboring terrorists in the event that they regain control of the country.
In the meantime, American officials must also work to coordinate intra-Afghan peace talks whenever possible. The Taliban has demonstrated willingness to cooperate with American negotiators, but relations between the Taliban and the Afghan government remain hostile. Even into May, the Taliban has continued to claim attacks on Afghan forces. The attack on an Afghan Army outpost in early May left at least 15 soldiers dead, and a May 18 attack on an Afghan intelligence base killed at least seven Afghans. As The Economist points out, “Taliban attacks rose by more than 70% year-on-year in the six weeks after they signed a peace deal with America in Qatar at the end of February.” Such attacks certainly do not bode well for Afghanistan’s future, even if coronavirus offers Ghani and the Taliban the opportunity to join forces against a “common enemy.”
Trump is right to pull the United States back from Afghanistan. The war cost American blood and treasure, and Afghans deserve a fair shot at a self-determined future. But the pandemic has added one too many new variables to an already uncertain situation, and Ghani’s government needs US support now more than ever. As coronavirus rages through Central Asia and Afghanistan takes its first steps toward a post-occupation future, the maintenance of a mutually beneficial partnership becomes more crucial by the day.
Alison O’Neil is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame. She majored in history and political science, with a minor in energy studies, and was a member of Women in International Security. Her areas of focus include insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, geopolitics, and great-power competition, especially with regard to Asian and Middle Eastern security issues.