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Prospects for Peace: The Way Forward in Afghanistan
Prospects for Peace: The Way Forward in Afghanistan
COVID-19 in Afghanistan: Compounding Crises
COVID-19 in Afghanistan: Compounding Crises
Speech / United States

Prospects for Peace: The Way Forward in Afghanistan

In this testimony delivered to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, Crisis Group's Asia Program Director Laurel Miller analyses the 29 February U.S.-Taliban agreement, assessing its implications for both the U.S. military presence and the larger peace process in Afghanistan.

Good afternoon, Chairman Bera, Ranking Member Yoho, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for the invitation to testify at this important hearing on the prospects for peace in Afghanistan in light of the February 29 conclusion of an agreement between the United States and the Taliban.

I will provide an overview and analysis of the main elements of the agreement; discuss what the agreement means for U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, particularly the continuation or not of a military presence in the country; sketch several scenarios for the outcome of the peace process; and identify several problems to watch for that could thwart a political settlement.

Founded in 1995, International Crisis Group is a field-based organization that conducts research and advocacy on preventing and resolving deadly conflict. We operate in dozens of countries around the world and have worked on Afghanistan for almost two decades. Our field work gives us insight into the perspectives on all sides of conflicts and crises and on the dynamics that shape them on the ground.[fn]A fuller description of Crisis Group’s mission and methodology can be found – together with our publications on Afghanistan and other regions – at CrisisGroup.orgHide Footnote

Key Terms of the U.S.-Taliban Deal and Early Implementation Challenges

On 29 February 2020, in Doha, Qatar, the United States and the Taliban signed a four-page “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan”.[fn]Available at https://www.state.gov/agreement-for-bringing-peace-to-afghanistan/.Hide Footnote  The agreement reportedly has two non-disclosed annexes regarding implementation measures that have been made available to Members of Congress for review. References in my testimony to the agreement concern only the publicly-available main portion.

The agreement centers on a U.S. commitment to withdraw all military forces and other non-diplomatic personnel from Afghanistan within 14 months from the signature date of the agreement, in exchange for a Taliban commitment to prevent al-Qaeda or any other group or individual from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States or its allies. Importantly, it also includes a Taliban commitment to enter into “intra-Afghan negotiations” – a process that the text indicated was set to commence on March 10. The agreement makes clear that the forces of U.S. allies and partners in Afghanistan would be drawn down in parallel with U.S. forces.

Two paragraphs of the agreement lay out the withdrawal timeline and conditions. The first of those states simply that, within 135 days, the U.S. will reduce its number of troops to 8,600 (and allies and Coalition forces will reduce proportionately), and that all forces will be withdrawn from five bases. This paragraph states no conditions for this first phase of withdrawal – meaning, on the agreement’s face at least, that this phase will proceed regardless of the Taliban’s conduct.

The second of the withdrawal paragraphs states that “complete withdrawal” of all remaining forces from remaining bases will occur within the subsequent nine and half months. This paragraph does include conditionality, the entirety of which is stated as a preface to the withdrawal language, ie, “[w]ith the commitment and action on the obligations” of the Taliban, the withdrawal will proceed. Those obligations are that the Taliban “will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa’ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies” and will “not host” such individuals or groups. The Taliban also agree to “instruct” their members not to cooperate with such groups or individuals, and to “prevent” such groups or individuals from recruiting, training, and fundraising.

The agreement’s only other indication of conditionality is a statement that four elements – the Taliban’s anti-terrorism assurances, the withdrawal timeline for foreign forces, the Taliban commitment to “start” negotiations with other Afghans, and the Taliban’s commitment to include permanent ceasefire as “an item on the agenda” in those negotiations – are “interrelated”. The intended meaning of the inter-relationship is ambiguous, however, because the agreement also says that the “four elements each will be implemented in accordance with its own agreed timeline and agreed terms”, a provision that seems potentially contradictory to inter-relation.

In a concession to the Taliban, the agreement also includes an aggressive timeline for removal of UN sanctions (by 29 May 2020) and U.S. sanctions (by 27 August 2020) imposed on members of the Taliban, though these are stated as goals. Attracting greater controversy so far, the agreement includes, as another concession, a U.S. commitment to achieve the release of “up to” 5,000 Taliban prisoners and “up to” 1,000 prisoners “of the other side” prior to the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, and all remaining prisoners over the course of the subsequent three months. Taliban prisoners are held by the Afghan government, not the United States. Afghan government authorities have so far balked at this timeline for prisoner releases.

Two complications quickly beset implementation of the agreement; the lasting significance of these is not yet clear. First was the dissension over prisoner releases. Differences between the U.S.-Taliban agreement and a “Joint Declaration” the United States and Afghan government signed in Kabul the same day created ambiguity as to whether there were shared understandings on whether and when releases would occur.[fn]Available at https://www.state.gov/agreement-for-bringing-peace-to-afghanistan/.Hide Footnote  Regarding prisoners, the declaration states only that the Afghan government will “participate in a U.S.-facilitated discussion with Taliban representatives on confidence building measures, to include determining the feasibility of releasing significant numbers of prisoners on both sides”. As of the time this testimony was submitted, U.S. discussions with the Afghan government and Taliban aimed at reaching an accommodation on this issue appeared to be underway.

The second complication stemmed from a separate ambiguity, concerning expectations of the extent to which violence would persist after 29 February. The U.S., Afghan government and Taliban had mutually agreed upon and implemented a seven-day period of “reduction in violence” beginning on 22 February that was intended to improve the atmosphere for concluding the agreement. U.S. officials had pointedly expressed their expectation that the Taliban would keep violence subdued even after signing of the agreement, but the Taliban did not publicly confirm their concurrence in such expectations. The text of the agreement does not require the Taliban to abjure violence at this stage. Since 29 February, Taliban violence has somewhat increased over the reduced level of preceding days, drawing U.S. and Afghan government complaints and military actions in response. The Taliban does not technically appear to be in violation of the agreement, however.

Public debate about the U.S.-Taliban agreement has surfaced the question whether it is a peace deal or “just” a withdrawal deal.

What Kind of Deal Has the U.S. Made with the Taliban?

Public debate about the U.S.-Taliban agreement has surfaced the question whether it is a peace deal or “just” a withdrawal deal. This is the wrong question to ask because the former characterization oversells the agreement and the latter undervalues it.

The deal is not a peace agreement. Even full implementation of the terms that are within the four corners of the four-page agreement would not alone bring peace to Afghanistan. Only a political settlement among the Afghan parties to the conflict can do that. The U.S.-Taliban deal does, however, create an opportunity for that political settlement to be achieved by committing the Taliban to enter into intra-Afghan negotiations – but it is so far only an opportunity.

The deal is unquestionably a withdrawal agreement, in that it sets out terms for the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. But the withdrawal commitment is inextricably linked to the potential for a negotiated peace. In light of the Taliban’s longstanding primary demand for the complete end of the foreign military presence in Afghanistan, there is no prospect of a political settlement of the war that does not include the promise of a U.S. military withdrawal. If there was ever to be such a settlement, sooner or later the U.S. would have to commit to pulling out. Making that commitment prior to the start of peace negotiations among Afghans, rather than in connection with the outcome, was a U.S. concession to the Taliban, but it was one the U.S. probably had to make to jump-start talks. Years of U.S. efforts to catalyze peace negotiations without making that sequencing concession had failed precisely for that reason.

The U.S. has a starker choice to make than some would prefer. Either it can keep military forces in Afghanistan indefinitely or it can enable the possibility of a political settlement by agreeing to withdraw its forces; it cannot do both. Some who are uncomfortable with both perpetuation of “endless war” and the risk entailed by complete withdrawal have suggested that the U.S. military should draw down but maintain a small number of forces in Afghanistan. These suggestions fail, however, to grapple with the Taliban’s refusal to countenance to a continued foreign military presence no matter the size.

Because the agreement calls for a complete military withdrawal within 14 months, it appears to signify that the U.S. has now made this choice. But this is another respect in which the agreement contains some ambiguity. U.S. officials have emphasized repeatedly that the withdrawal commitment is conditions-based. As already noted, the condition (there is only one) – Taliban “commitment and action” on its anti-terrorism “obligations” – is very briefly stated. The U.S. appears to have left itself wide latitude to judge the specific nature and sufficiency of Taliban “action”. The Taliban may dispute U.S. judgments in this regard but it will not be able to compel the U.S. to accept an interpretation at variance with an American one.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper added to the uncertainty by asserting an additional condition not in the text of the agreement in an opinion piece published on 29 February.[fn]“Defense Secretary Mark Esper: This is our chance to bring troops home from Afghanistan for good”, Washington Post, 29 February 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/02/29/defense-secretary-mark-esper-this-is-our-chance-bring-troops-home-afghanistan-good/.
 Hide Footnote
 He stated that the U.S. troop presence would be reduced “to a goal of zero in 2021” if “progress on the political front between the Taliban and the current Afghan government continues”, and that stalled progress probably would translate into suspension of the drawdown. This suggestion of conditionality outside the actual text muddies the deal.

A peace settlement among Afghans will have to determine how to share power and security responsibilities...

The Next Stage, and the Next Main Hurdles

If the initial complications regarding prisoner releases and expectations regarding violence are resolved and intra-Afghan talks commence, then even tougher issues await negotiators than those addressed in U.S.-Taliban talks. A peace settlement among Afghans will have to determine how to share power and security responsibilities, and how to modify state structures to satisfy both the current government’s interest in maintaining the current system and the Taliban’s desire for a system they would regard as more Islamic.[fn]Regarding substantive issues that will likely have to be addressed in intra-Afghan negotiations, see Laurel E. Miller and Jonathan S. Blake, “Envisioning a Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Afghanistan”, RAND Corporation, 2019, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2937.html.
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This next stage of talks appears to be, as yet, woefully under-prepared. Even with the negotiations possibly imminent there is still much left to be decided and done: the parties have yet to name a venue for the talks, at least publicly; agree on an agenda (save for the Taliban’s commitment to include ceasefire as a topic); or designate the members of negotiating teams. Putting together the negotiating team is a problem particularly on the Afghan government’s side, due to the recent high-stakes political tensions over presidential election results. In addition, U.S. intentions regarding its role in shaping or participating in the next-stage negotiations are unclear – nor is it apparent what sort of U.S. involvement the Afghan negotiating sides would welcome.

A process as difficult as peace talks aimed at ending decades of war in Afghanistan is unlikely to get off to a productive start without thorough and urgent preparation. International Crisis Group has proposed practical steps that can be taken to bolster the prospects for sustaining intra-Afghan talks beyond an opening round and eventually producing a political settlement to the conflict.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°160, Twelve Ideas to Make Intra-Afghan Negotiations Work, 2 March 2020, https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-asia/afghanistan/b160-making-intra-afghan-negotiations-work-twelve-ideas.Hide Footnote  These include designating a neutral mediator, selecting a location for talks based on the host government’s ability to organize and facilitate them effectively, and clarifying the format and structure for talks.

Scenarios for Plausible Outcomes

If the Afghan parties, with support and pressure from the U.S. and other interested governments, overcome both the political and organizational challenges to starting an Afghan peace process, that process is not likely to produce results quickly. A timeline of a year or more would not be surprising given the complexity of the issues and other experiences with peace processes around the world. If the talks extend beyond the 14-month timeline for a U.S. military withdrawal, Washington will have to face the decision whether to proceed with the withdrawal regardless. If the talks fail to gain traction and the peace process collapses, the U.S. also will have to face that same decision.

Setting aside the question of the timeline, in a scenario in which the Afghan parties succeed in reaching a political settlement there will be no basis (in accordance with the 29 February U.S.-Taliban agreement) for the U.S. to keep any forces in Afghanistan, including for a counter-terrorism mission. Unless the Taliban dramatically changes its viewpoint on the question of a foreign military presence, zero will have to mean zero or else the Taliban will not concur in a settlement. In this scenario, the U.S. would be able to maintain its embassy (and appropriate security personnel for the embassy), and thus would be in a position to provide both diplomatic and necessary financial support for implementation of the settlement. There is a theoretical possibility that a future Afghan government that includes the Taliban might agree to some form of counter-terrorism security cooperation with the United States, but the plausibility of that is quite uncertain.

In an alternative scenario in which the peace process collapses and there is no political settlement, the war will persist. In those conditions, if the U.S. decides to maintain troops in Afghanistan, it is unlikely that their numbers could dip much below the level anticipated in the first phase of withdrawal. Some have suggested that the U.S. military might be able to scale down its mission to one focused only on counter-terrorism. That is an implausible outcome because Afghan government forces would continue to be reliant on the U.S. in their existential fight against the Taliban insurgency, and the Afghan government would not likely consent to a U.S. force presence that aims to serve only U.S. counter-terrorism interests while declining to back up the government in its fight. Moreover, any U.S. forces remaining in the country would have to maintain sufficient capabilities to continue protecting themselves from Taliban attacks.

In the peace process collapse scenario, if the U.S. maintains more or less the status quo level of forces, it probably could prevent the defeat of the Afghan government for the foreseeable future – at more or less status quo levels of financial support. The ongoing conflict would continue to severely constrain Afghan economic growth and limit improvements in governance capacity. On the other hand, if the U.S. in this scenario proceeded with military withdrawal, the conflict would likely worsen, perhaps even rapidly spiraling into intensified and multi-sided civil war. In that context, the U.S. embassy would be in jeopardy and probably would have to be evacuated; civilian assistance would be reduced to humanitarian-only; and security assistance would become difficult to deliver unless the U.S. were prepared to forego oversight. The implications for the Afghan population – which last year suffered over 10,000 civilian casualties alone – would be grave.

An especially difficult scenario for the U.S. to navigate would involve the Afghan parties sustaining peace negotiations for most or all of the 14-month drawdown period but collapsing around that point in time. If the U.S., in fact, adheres to the 14-month timeline, the drawdown will have to be well underway close to the final deadline. Notably, the 29 February agreement – again, in the public portions – says nothing about the pace and slope of drawdown during the period after the first 135 days, so it is uncertain what current U.S. military plans are in this regard.

The possibility of one or more parties to the talks negotiating in good faith just long enough for the U.S. to implement its withdrawal commitment cannot be excluded. This risk can be mitigated only imperfectly through measures such as assessing the parties’ negotiating behavior as talks proceed; encouraging a process that produces a series of interim agreements that build on each other rather than one that withholds any agreement until the end; and working diplomatically with other governments that have influence with the parties to sustain external pressure in favor of conflict resolution. It should be noted that even if the parties do negotiate in good faith and finalize a political settlement, that settlement – like many peace agreements – could still fall apart at any time during implementation. This is a risk that an indefinite U.S. military presence (leaving aside the implausibility of the Taliban agreeing to such) is not likely to mitigate successfully given that the last 18 years of U.S. experience in Afghanistan shows the limits of Washington’s ability to compel its preferred outcomes through force.

The more-positive and the more-negative scenarios sketched out here are plausible and therefore should equally inform contingency planning.

Problems to Watch Out For

As and when the currently unsettled state of the peace process begins to clarify, there are several problems that may come to the foreground.

First, the fuzziness of the withdrawal conditions in the 29 February agreement may indicate that the U.S. has not resolved its internal policy struggle over whether it really intends to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan. President Trump has been clear about his preference to pull out and public support for the war has dimmed. But the commitment of elements of the national security bureaucracy appears uneven.

Second, even if Kabul manages to quickly pull together an inclusive negotiating team for the intra-Afghan talks, ongoing political disunity among factions and ethnic groups may bedevil the team’s ability to reach consensus on its negotiating positions. Furthermore, it is not yet clear whether the maximalists or those more amenable to compromise with the Taliban will be dominant on Kabul’s side of the negotiating table.

Third, as for the Taliban, they have not yet had to make any very difficult choices. Consequently, the nascent peace process has not yet seriously tested their ability to do so. Because their cohesion has been one of their comparative advantages and because they diligently, and sometimes ruthlessly, protect it, it is not yet clear whether they will be willing and able to make controversial compromises that might strain cohesion.

These are not the only problems the peace process is likely to encounter – I have not, for instance, touched on the capabilities of Pakistan and Iran to make a successful process more or less likely – but these problems alone could be enough to scuttle it. Because the U.S. can only be a supporting player in the next, intra-Afghan stage, it cannot guarantee a successful outcome. As it becomes clearer what the actual outcome will be, and if that outcome is failure of the peace process, the U.S. will need to weigh the known costs and risks of maintaining its military presence against the less certain risks of pulling out.

Men wearing facemasks queue up to receive free wheat from the government emergency committee in Kabul, 21 April 2020. AFP/Wakil Kohsar

COVID-19 in Afghanistan: Compounding Crises

COVID-19 appears on course to sweep through Afghanistan, yet the public health crisis may pale compared to resultant severe food insecurity. Engaged actors should press for initiation of Afghan peace talks, recognise the potential scope of food shortages and commit to unhindered flow of aid.

In late March, Afghanistan’s minister of public health publicly shared estimates that up to 25 million Afghans could eventually be infected with the novel coronavirus. This is out of a population of about 36 million. The Afghan government has announced a wide range of measures to contain the virus, mirroring global practices of physical distancing. But the weaknesses of health care infrastructure in a country weighed down by poverty and four decades of conflict render Afghanistan especially challenged to manage any major outbreak. Reports of COVID-19-related deaths remain low, but hospitals are straining and are beginning to lose staff: staff are not only falling ill, with some even dying of the disease, but many are simply refusing to work under conditions they deem hazardous. Health care data in Afghanistan is historically unreliable, and the government has only managed to test around 100 people per day – all of which leaves enormous uncertainty as to the ultimate scope of the problem in a country where roughly only one in four people has access to quality health care.

The return of nearly 300,000 Afghan migrant workers since February from Pakistan and Iran, one of the virus’ global epicentres, appears to have overwhelmed the government’s attempts to contain an outbreak. The Afghan health ministry assessed that the virus has spread to 29 of 34 provinces, first as a result of these mass returns but now organically within communities, too. Herat, a province bordering Iran, has been hardest hit by reported cases and hospitalisations. Iran’s border with Afghanistan remains open and while Pakistan’s closed for several weeks, tens of thousands have rushed across, as the border has opened sporadically, a few days at a time. Humanitarian organisations have advised against border closures in Afghanistan’s case. Indeed, large populations of migrant workers continue to seek to cross borders in and out of Iran and Pakistan, and closures at borders with limited state capacity will likely lead to population build-up in makeshift camps; not only could these crossing points serve as hubs for infection, but there are serious human rights and health concerns – even claims of several dozen migrants being drowned by Iranian border guards.

Even before the pandemic, Afghanistan was home to 14 million people with insufficient access to food.

As yet the toll on Afghans from COVID-19 remains unclear; the World Health Organisation admits there “is no model” for how the virus may impact a country with Afghanistan’s vulnerabilities. But regardless of how severe the toll, the public health crisis is not the only – and may not even be the gravest – challenge the pandemic poses.

Food scarcity and insecurity might pose greater threats, as shortages fuel rising prices of basic foodstuffs, urban lockdowns cripple informal and day labour employment, and remittances from abroad plummet. Even before the pandemic, Afghanistan was home to 14 million people with insufficient access to or resources to afford food, many of whom depend on international assistance.

Food Insecurity in a Landlocked Country

Already there are worrying signs. The Afghan government anticipated the economic strain of its pandemic response, quickly initiating emergency grain distribution in Kabul and across the country. But strategic reserves are not sufficient to cover the population’s urgent needs, and reports show scenes of panic and rising resentment. The UN and humanitarian actors have begun to raise the alarm about the potentially massive scope of starvation and are scrambling to augment government efforts, but lockdowns have restricted their ability to provide aid. Experts are eying a transition to cash-based assistance, anticipating protracted difficulties in actually distributing food, but currency exchanges and money transfer services have been shuttered under lockdown, and more adaptive measures, such as smartphone money transfers, would have limited reach.

In many respects, Afghanistan’s ability to mitigate food scarcity will hinge on how its neighbours, many of whom face their own dire circumstances, react to the pandemic. Afghanistan depends on imports for most basic food commodities, including wheat flour, which makes up nearly three quarters of poor Afghans’ diet. Most of the country’s wheat imports, which have doubled over the last decade, originate in Kazakhstan. But unlike in Iran and Pakistan, COVID-19 has prompted Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours to tightly clamp shut their borders. Afghan officials have attempted to reassure the public that commercial traffic will not be interrupted, but it takes two to trade: Kazakhstan halted all wheat exports in March when it grew concerned about domestic stocks. Export flows have since resumed, but under strictly limited quotas – limitations that are currently set to continue until at least September. More broadly, Central Asian states are likely to be preoccupied with domestic concerns for some time. Russia’s coronavirus response has left many migrant workers from Central Asia temporarily out of work, shrinking the normal flow of billions in remittance revenues. A regional economic squeeze will have ripple effects on Afghanistan: Uzbekistan has recently pressured Kabul into paying its overdue bill for the nation’s electricity, for instance.

The UN and humanitarian actors have begun to raise the alarm about the potentially massive scope of starvation.

In the meantime, Kabul is looking to India as an immediate substitute provider of wheat, which requires transporting the goods via Iran’s Chabahar port. Yet India’s own grain harvest this year is reportedly in jeopardy due to that country’s lockdown, and current arrangements between Kabul and Delhi fall far short of the more than two million metric tonnes Afghanistan requires in imports this year. Moreover, the full fallout from Iran’s COVID-19 outbreak could be catastrophic, and the ability of Chabahar port to operate at peak efficiency should not be assumed.

Any uptick in tensions among Afghanistan’s neighbours and other regional powers could make things more complex still. Potential triggers of cross-border crises remain unpredictable. Even when regional dynamics are calm, fits and starts in Afghanistan’s commercial routes are routine. In the case of any flare-ups, the flow of goods could be slowed deleteriously. Pakistan, which sits between Afghanistan and India, has severed trade between the countries in the past when its relations with India grew strained, as it did last year during tensions over Kashmir (these tensions continue to simmer even amid the pandemic). Chabahar is a node in a politically contentious trade route. It is rivalled by Pakistan’s Gwadar port, a joint Chinese-Pakistani project, and, at the same time, has precarious status as a rare exception to U.S. sanctions on Iran. In the short term, regional competition has some potential to impact Afghanistan positively. Days after Indian donations of wheat arrived at Chabahar, headed for Kabul, Pakistan, eager not to be outdone by Indian generosity, announced that Gwadar would reopen for massive humanitarian shipments as well. But the country’s largest commercial border crossings have already proven tenuous since the pandemic began to spread, and even slight delays could jolt food supply lines.

All this means that both city-dwelling Afghans and those in the countryside risk losing access to food and income. With lockdowns of urban centres leaving hundreds of thousands of day labourers out of work, and rising food prices prompting panic and desperation, there is potential for increased crime. Criminality has already been steadily worsening in Kabul over the last year, carried out by organised enterprises and petty thieves alike. Politically connected citizens are killed in broad daylight by unknown actors, while businessmen, medical professionals and aspirational middle-class families are targeted for ransom kidnapping. It is openly reported that the gangs responsible are affiliated with (and enjoy protection from) high-level political figures. Several residents told Crisis Group they worry that groups that operate with impunity, even under lockdown conditions, will take advantage of the fearful atmosphere the pandemic has instilled. Fewer people on the street may make it easier for kidnappers to conduct surveillance on and seize targets, given fewer bystanders. During the initial weeks of Kabul’s movement restrictions, several conflict monitors told Crisis Group that crime rates had dropped – but as restrictions are increasingly being dodged, opportunistic crime is expected to rise. Moreover, gender-based violence and other chronically underreported criminality has been expected to worsen under lockdown conditions.

Limited oversight and management capacity will further limit aid delivery when it is needed most.

Civil unrest is also a worry. Some Afghans voice concerns about increased danger to the Hazara ethnic minority, a common target of discrimination, as slurs and racially charged conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus are repeated across the country. Some officials fear that hungry crowds could gather to protest or even riot over perceived inequalities in food distribution – scattered protests have already taken place in the cities of Herat, Jalalabad, Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul. Some internationals also relayed concerns to Crisis Group about urban unrest. Humanitarians have been mulling over global precedents for aid workers and their resources being targeted in times of scarcity; one aid worker noted that out of more than a thousand international humanitarian staff usually based in Kabul perhaps only 300 remained as of mid-April. Limited oversight and management capacity will further limit aid delivery when it is needed most.

Rural populations, including those who live in areas under Taliban influence, will also be affected by the pandemic, if not in precisely the same ways as those in urban areas. Although rural spaces, where intergenerational family units reside in walled compounds, face the potential for rapid spread within families, they may in fact experience far slower rates due to sparse population density. But market shock waves will impact the entire country at once: an average rural diet consists of as much imported wheat, sugar and cooking oil as in cities, and the country’s more remote regions are already precariously on the edge of near-starvation (as the drought of 2017-2018 highlighted). While the government has moved to provide free bread to a quarter-million people in need in Kabul, this initiative already faces planning and logistical difficulties, which are likely to multiply if attempted across the countryside – not to mention the potential for bread queues to spread the virus further.

The Taliban, the Pandemic and Peace

The Taliban, in spite of a rather well-organised public relations campaign addressing COVID-19, appear to have mandated very few sweeping public health measures, and reports suggest that some of their preventive activities are fraudulent. The poppy harvest, much of which takes place in areas under Taliban control, seems to have progressed as usual this spring – potentially an additional vector for spread of the virus to rural populations. As in previous natural disasters and humanitarian crises, the Taliban’s call for heightened international support is strongly linked to their quest for both greater resources and international legitimacy as a government-in-waiting. In recent years, the insurgent group has increased the attention it pays to public messaging and has organised a “shadow government” commission on public health, but it devotes few resources of its own to the woefully under-resourced medical services in areas it controls.

Yet while the Taliban’s public health scramble may be more window-dressing than substance, several interlocutors relayed that the movement’s leaders have slowly realised the gravity of the virus. The Taliban’s own website has called it a “serious global challenge … never seen previously”. The group’s concern likely extends to the impact of COVID-19 on its fighting strength. Although the pandemic may creep into the barracks of Afghan security forces much faster than among cells of Taliban fighters, insurgents will not necessarily be spared. They often eat and sleep communally, and in some locations move among various residences of supporters. Moreover, even though fighting forces on the two sides may be affected at different speeds, areas under Taliban control rely on market provisions with the same supply lines as the rest of the country. Hunger will strike everywhere.

The Taliban have thus far ignored calls for a comprehensive humanitarian ceasefire, even as they seem to have grasped the potential for catastrophe. These calls have now been issued by the UN Secretary-General, the UN Security Council, Afghanistan's neighbours and other international bodies, along with the Afghan government and much of Afghan civil society. Sceptics of peace efforts have pointed to the group’s dismissal of these calls as further evidence that it is not serious about ending the war.

A ceasefire will probably only come as a result of progress in the peace process.

In reality, the Taliban have never halted violence nationwide for the sake of humanitarian considerations, in spite of numerous reasons to do so in the past: annual flooding, harsh winter weather, devastating drought or displacement due to conflict. There is little reason to expect the group to change its calculus on violence and human suffering now. From the Taliban’s perspective, their ability to threaten and cause violence is the group’s primary leverage against the U.S. and Afghan governments. The Taliban have expressed mistrust of calls for a humanitarian ceasefire, in part because the Afghan government had preconditioned taks on a ceasefire long before the pandemic struck. Fundamentally, the Taliban see the same risks in a COVID-19-related ceasefire as they do in any other lull in fighting; in addition to mistrust, there is evidence that the group worries a lengthy halt in fighting could cripple its hard-fought cohesion and strategic momentum.

While this stance reflects poorly on the Taliban, it does not necessarily mean that the movement is turning its back on genuine peace negotiations. The group insists that the path to a ceasefire lies in observing the terms of its agreement with the United States. That deal, signed on 29 February in Doha, Qatar, includes a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in exchange for Taliban assurances that the movement will renounce international terrorism – with the further intent to quickly initiate peace talks among Afghans. The Taliban expect some of the terms of that deal – prisoner releases in particular – to be implemented before a ceasefire is discussed.

Health calamities and other human suffering do not always prompt conflict actors to pause violence, much less come to the peace table – and even when they do, that is not always enough to make peace last. A ceasefire will probably only come as a result of progress in the peace process. Parties to the conflict should press forward with the initiation of intra-Afghan peace talks, which were supposed to start on 10 March, according to the U.S.-Taliban deal.

Pragmatic Way Forward

At the same time, international and regional actors should recognise the potentially massive scale of both food shortages and the public health emergency and commit to the unhindered flow of food and medical aid. Earlier in April, the Taliban made ambiguous claims that health services, including international organisations, would be able to treat COVID-19 unhindered in areas of their control. To hold them to that, the Taliban could plausibly be called upon by the U.S. and engaged actors to refrain from fighting on major roadways – on the grounds that it would interfere with the transport of essential goods, including coronavirus-related food and medical aid, into areas they control. Indeed, securing commercial traffic should be made a top priority by both sides – as reprobate Taliban commanders or even some militias aligned with government forces may turn predatory as their resources begin to dwindle. Meanwhile, the Afghan government can prioritise smoothing the way for international and local relief efforts; Crisis Group spoke to several humanitarians who described confusion and coordination difficulties between NGOs and government authorities early on, which led to delays in program planning as well as the ability of staff to travel and deliver aid.

International and regional actors should commit to the unhindered flow of food and medical aid.

Regional powers should keep trade flowing smoothly and coordinate to ensure the stability of Afghanistan’s supply lines for basic goods, and should make exceptional efforts to prevent persistent tensions between some of them from coming to a boil. The U.S. has already begun encouraging the steady flow of wheat and other imports into Afghanistan; early signs of some reopening may illustrate neighbours’ desire to keep their agricultural sectors robust. The European Union is closely monitoring the country’s food security, as are the World Bank and UN agencies. China should follow its decision in January to push shipments to Kabul through Gwadar, after several years of delay in operationalising the port, with continued assistance for Afghanistan.

Strengthening Afghanistan’s health care infrastructure fast enough and dramatically enough to cope effectively with the public health consequences of COVID-19 is probably unrealistic, even with lockdowns and social distancing measures, which themselves come at high costs. Even before the pandemic, Afghanistan’s health care capacity was falling short. But mitigating the effects of the pandemic on Afghanistan’s food security could be possible through a major food-based relief effort and (limited) progress on conflict resolution. At a moment when the country’s window of opportunity for peace seems to be narrowing, keeping Afghans from starving is one commitment all parties should be able to make.