The coronavirus pandemic is set to kill over 2.5 million Afghans at a time when the Trump administration threatens $1B dollars in Afghan aid and continues troop reduction. This massive death toll will skyrocket unemployment—a climate historically ripe for Taliban recruitment. Now is the point of no return in protecting any peace deal and safeguarding Afghanistan from further bloodshed. The U.S. must reinstate aid for Afghan healthcare and equip already deployed troops to assist with coronavirus control.
In advising an Afghan province of nearly 1 million people, we’ve determined an availability of only 20 hospital beds that meet the standards for quarantining COVID-19 patients. The United States’ aid cut undermines the ability of the Afghan government to expand these essential life support services. In the absence of the U.S. funding to support the Afghan government’s efforts, the Taliban has the chance to reinforce its legitimacy.
We can look to history to see how this phenomenon has played out in prior failed U.S. interventions in the Middle East. In Iran, the revolutionary forces’ heavy investments into health infrastructure in the 1970s rapidly increased its Human Development Index and state legitimacy, even in the face of regional conflicts and volatile unemployment. As Afghanistan faces a similar milieu of instability, the Taliban have engaged in coronavirus response efforts with an unprecedented accommodation of WHO healthcare guidelines. The Taliban recently enforced strict quarantines, issued a religious decree on coronavirus, and permitted international medical organizations to provide care in disputed territories.
In studying coronavirus preparedness in Afghanistan, we found that quarantine mandates are especially difficult to enforce. The majority of Afghans subsist on daily earnings in industries subsidized by foreign aid and cannot be employed in “work from home” models. While the U.S. government aims to foster democratic governance in the Middle East, totalitarian insurgents have greater authority to enforce uncomfortable quarantines in a pandemic. The Taliban have corralled Afghans using inhumane methods, which ironically may flatten the virus transmission curve. Underfunded Afghan officials have similarly instituted quarantines in provinces bordering Iran, but lack the resources to strictly enforce these measures when patients escape.
In addition to restoring aid that funds the Afghan government’s more democratic response to COVID-19, the U.S. should not increase its troop numbers, but should prepare its already stationed troops to assist in registering Afghan returnees from Iran. This week, Iran reported more than 5,000 total coronavirus-related deaths. In the span of March 15th to March 21st, at least 62,000 Afghan laborers in Iran migrated back to Afghanistan. In border provinces like Herat, this migration has skyrocketed coronavirus cases and exposed systemic failures in screening returnees.
The U.S. cannot abandon Afghanistan at a time when the pandemic has cleared the way for more Taliban violence. We’ve found that sending coronavirus test samples from the Daikundi province to Kabul’s processing centers can take up to 8 days due to transportation infrastructure deficiencies. The U.S. troops already deployed in these provinces can provide critical support for the Afghan government’s coronavirus crackdown by assisting medical distributors and mobile clinic teams.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought the future of U.S.-Afghan relations to a crossroads. To keep the Taliban at bay, the U.S. needs to reinvest $1B aid into the Afghan government’s healthcare structures and utilize its remaining troops to bolster the government’s coronavirus response. If America doesn’t, it risks handing victory to the Taliban in not one, but two conflicts: the war on terror and the battle against coronavirus.