What’s Eating Afghanistan? - Taliban and Power Struggle at the Time of Covid-19

Updated: May 9, 2020

The re-emergence of the Taliban, the changing contours of US policy towards Afghanistan, and a rapidly spreading pandemic are some of the headlines emanating out of Afghanistan. The politics in the country stands at a crucial juncture and its future course will have ramifications for itself and the region.

Ms. Chayanika Saxena and Dr. Monish Tourangbam have answered some pertinent questions on multiple crucial variables at play in Afghanistan. Ms. Chayanika Saxena answers the first two questions, whereas Dr. Monish Tourangbam answers the following two questions.

As per Afghanistan health ministry’s estimates, 25.6 million Afghans will be infected and 110,000 Afghans will succumb to Covid-19. The country is also said to be facing a startling shortage of testing facilities, testing kits, and other essentials required to wage a meaningful battle against the rapidly spreading pandemic. On the other hand, the tussle between the Taliban and the Afghan forces has diluted the country’s fight against the pandemic. What kind of hurdles will Afghanistan face in the coming days due to this predicament?

According to projected estimates provided both by domestic agencies, such as the Ministry of Public Health, and those by international actors like the WHO, the COVID pandemic at its peak will end up taking a human toll that is higher than the number of people that the war in Afghanistan has so far consumed. The shortage in its medical infrastructure, combined with organic resistance and reluctance to obey the administrative directives, is generating a great amount of trouble for the country. The popular resistance/reluctance is partially a result of poverty that is forcing people to go out of their homes in search of a living. The other part, perhaps, echoes the initial sentiments of the Taliban. The insurgent group, at the start of the pandemic, had portrayed it as some sort of ‘divine retribution’, which, to quote from their mouthpiece, Saw’t al jihad (Voice of Jihad), was “sent by Allah (SwT) because of the disobedience and sins of mankind or other reasons”. Such ideas and opinions, let us not forget, tend to stick longer in the minds of people especially when the economic, political, and social standards of a country are weak to make the masses look for refuge and comfort in fatalistic thinking. Har che bad aabad as they say in Farsi – what will be, will be.

Coming to the specific problems, there are two kinds mainly – those that will be caused by the pandemic and those that will affect the country’s response to it. The former issue is anyone’s guess – poor health infrastructure combined with spiraling insecurity, economic deprivation, and political bickering will take a toll on people mentally and physically. This will eventually have an impact on the peace process as the official, constitutional and legitimate government will stand more discredited than ever before, paving way for the Taliban, which is a far more cohesive force, to lay claim on the political seat of the country.

But these are still distant possibilities; they are conjectural. The problems Afghanistan is facing in the ‘now’, i.e. the impediments to the effective management of the pandemic, are far more concerning. Let me dwell on them a bit. I will begin with the medical infrastructure. It is not only weak; it is tattered. It is a patchwork of institutions and facilities, some of which are run (ineptly) by the domestic agencies, while international institutions run the others. For a change, the Taliban has allowed international humanitarian workers to work in areas controlled by them, but only after they are “vetted” by the group. This insurgent group is also coordinating with domestic and international health agencies. Anything short of a ceasefire with the government is acceptable to them, demonstrating that their cooperation with the Afghan administration and international forces is, at best, parenthetical. So, to hope that the pandemic will break new ground as far as the peace process, on the whole, is concerned is like wanting to fly to the Alps tomorrow morning; it is both impossible and even ludicrous. I will discuss the political pandemonium in detail below, so let me skip to the major international variable – the Americans. As per their original drawdown plan, a part of the troops was to take off from Afghanistan, upon the fulfillment of some conditions, in July this year. If reports are correct, the pandemic may just hasten the process, creating a vacuum that even the Taliban will not be prepared for! The fight, or the jihad, as the Taliban would like to call it, continues between the Afghan forces/administration and the warring group. Perhaps, the only relieving news for us is that the Taliban has not declared its spring offensive yet and it may not do so in the near future either. But then, as I often mention, the decisions in (and maybe even for) Afghanistan are undone quicker than the lines disappearing in the sand.

What could be the impact of the ongoing impasse between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah for the government of Afghanistan in handling the battle to contain Covid-19, and the efforts to contain the Taliban, especially with the dwindling security and financial support from the United States?

After months of bickering and two parallel swearing-in ceremonies, the political landscape in Afghanistan might have begun to change for good. I highly doubt the ‘goodness’ and the efficacy of this change, but let us hypothetically assume that the recent ‘agreement to agree on power-sharing’ between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani might just provide relief to the extraordinarily stressed and troubled body politic of Afghanistan. According to reports, Abdullah has agreed to reconcile with Ghani if the latter provides him a greater role not only in the governance of the country but in the peace process too. To this effect, Abdullah has sought a very novel, and might I confirm an unconstitutional, post for himself. Ghani, reportedly, has already agreed to share his (very) narrowly won political power with Abdullah and make him “ Peace-oriented executive prime minister” of Afghanistan. What a fancy name for a post, which for all effects and purposes, will be constitutionally as hollow as the last position, that of Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah had held!

Almost like the previous arrangements that were a part of the National Unity Government, Ghani, the lover of innovative titles and models for management, seems to be willing to cede a 50% share to Abdullah in all the major matters – from defense to local administration – in the new “inclusive national government”. Perhaps, the only saving grace this time is the lack of ‘visible’ American involvement in ending the political stalemate. This is not to suggest that the invisible hand of the US did not play a major role; it very much did. Remember the USD 1 billion that they had promised to revoke? That’s the invisible, yet very powerful hand I am talking about.

The agreement to agree, as I would like to call it, is currently under review. With a few tweaks here and there, we might see it materializing into a concrete contract soon, ready to be breached all over again. Pardon my lack of faith in the political class in Afghanistan, but they have hardly been a coherent lot. Will this change in the future, especially when the Trump-led USA is all adamant about packing its bags and leaving? The answer is most certainly a resounding no unless a major change of heart convinces the political class to develop a united vision for the country. That is a big ‘if’, isn’t it? For now, there are just too many eyes that are seeing the past, present, and future of Afghanistan differently. It will take political maturity and a whole lot of compassion to get the country back on track after decades of virulent instability.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), in its quarterly report, stated that nearly 1,293 civilian casualties were reported in the first three months of the year, with the majority of it being reported in March after a US-Taliban deal. While the Pentagon seems eager to pull out of Afghanistan, what will be the repercussions for the Afghanistan Government with the reducing number of US forces?

Without any specific and formal commitments on stopping violence across the board, it would have been naïve to expect that the US-Taliban peace deal would miraculously change the course of the political game in Afghanistan. The unabated violence and clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan government forces after the peace deal have caught news headlines. In addition, the tense battle of power arrangement between the rival camps of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah amid the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the urgency for some kind of settlement that could pave the way for tangible peace efforts.

With the spectre of reduced US military support in the aftermath of the deal and the fragility of the intra-Afghan peace process during a fractured political unity, and a weak public healthcare system facing the virus outbreak, violence has become part and parcel of the peace negotiations. Like in the case of the 2014 presidential elections when then US Secretary of State John Kerry had to rush to Kabul to help engineer the National Unity Government, the current US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Kabul. However, failing to arrange a truce and demanding the Afghan political camps to come to an agreement, he announced cutting aid to the war-torn country. To ascertain that the violence can be decoupled from the peace negotiations would be to overlook what is feasible and pragmatic, and aim for the idealistic.

Violence in the case of most conflict zones is a negotiating tool to create more bargaining space in a dynamic negotiation landscape. As such, it is not surprising that, in the absence of formal assurances, the Taliban was going to use violence as a bargaining chip, while negotiating on prisoners' release and the terms of engagement with the Afghan government. Afghanistan literally stands at a precipice. The Taliban, which was overthrown from power in 2001 has remerged as a political and military force in the country, and now, has become a legitimate claimant to the power-sharing arrangement. Therefore, as Afghanistan enters a phase of a negotiated settlement between the Taliban’s vision of the Islamic Emirate and the kind of institutional mechanisms that make up the Afghan republic, the Afghan government forces will have to brace up for a Taliban that will use violence as a means to extract concessions on the negotiation table.

Lastly, what impact can the South Asian region expect from the multi-level power tussle enraging in Afghanistan, which includes instability in the government due to Ghani-Adhullah discord and the ascendence of the Taliban to the door-steps of power? Also, how would India’s role evolve in Afghanistan with all the uncertainties looming in the country?

In the face of a United States that is dangerously eager to pull of Afghanistan, a political tussle among the political camps in Afghanistan and a Taliban that is emboldened than ever, how should India gear up? What kind of power vacuum will be created in Afghanistan, and what assortment of players will fill it up? Given India’s principled stand to not engage with the Taliban, and its rather difficult history with the group, what does Taliban newfound legitimacy mean for India’s future role in Afghanistan? India’s role as one of the most significant civilian assistance donors to Afghanistan since 2001 has won general goodwill among the Afghan people. However, India has been visibly absent from the political and security dynamics panning out in Afghanistan.

The Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla made Afghanistan his maiden foreign trip a day before the signing of the US-Taliban in Qatar. Also, the Indian envoy to Qatar P Kumaran was as an invitee of the Qatari Government to the signing ceremony. Do these developments signal a new Indian approach more willing to play ball with the Taliban as a new political and power-sharing set up emerges in Afghanistan? It certainly requires India to develop a nimble-footed strategy to constantly assess the shifting sands in Afghanistan. India’s security role in Afghanistan has been restricted to training Afghan military officers in Indian military institutions and limited supply of military equipment.

There have often been calls from the Afghan government for India to step up its efforts in this sector. While there are no signs of any acute shift in India’s strategy, the debates in the Indian strategic community, regarding the nature of India’s role in Afghanistan, throws up a number of questions regarding the opportunities and risks of greater involvement in the security sector of Afghanistan. The foremost question in this regard will be Pakistan. What kind of an influence Pakistan will have in Kabul, in the condition of increased Taliban influence? Is it wrong to assume that a greater Taliban influence there, automatically translates to greater Pakistani presence? What kind of game India will be able to and willing to play, to maximize its assets and make its losses more affordable in the shape of things to come. Given the uncertainties in Afghanistan, it will be more important for New Delhi to figure out what is most feasible and practical in the scheme of things, than sticking on to, what is desirable.

About the experts:

Dr. Monish Tourangbam is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal. He was previously an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He was a South Asian Voices Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington D.C, and a visiting faculty at the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A.

Chayanika Saxena is a President Graduate Fellow and Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. Her doctoral research looks at the displacement experiences of Afghan migrants and refugees in New Delhi and Kolkata.


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