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Coronavirus threatens to undermine Afghan peace plan

Coronavirus threatens to undermine Afghan peace plan
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The coronavirus pandemic is throwing another curveball at President TrumpDonald John TrumpMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Republican John James concedes in Michigan Senate race MORE's already shaky efforts to end the war in Afghanistan.

The peace process is expected to take a back seat as Afghanistan’s fragile health system will likely struggle to respond to the spread of the virus.

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan has already paused troop rotations in and out of the country in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading among service members, and any effort to kickstart stalled negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government is complicated by the inability to meet in person.

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“With having this to deal with, the peace process is sort of put in the shadows,” Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute, said of the coronavirus. “The ramifications are so great that it’s hard to know what really follows from this. It was difficult enough to get a peace process going because of the prisoner issue and so on. But this is still a further setback, if only because it comes to the point where, do you really want to put together 50 people in a room?”

The Trump administration’s peace deal with the Taliban had already had several hiccups since it was signed at the end of February even before the pandemic exploded.

The Taliban resumed attacks against Afghan forces days after the agreement was signed, leading to at least one U.S. airstrike against the terror group in response. U.S. officials have said the Taliban attacks are not consistent with the deal and must stop.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani quickly rejected the deal’s requirement to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners ahead of intra-Afghan talks. He later agreed to release 1,500 ahead of the negotiations and the remaining 3,500 during them if insurgent violence was reduced, but the Taliban rejected the offer.

As of Friday, Afghanistan had just 24 confirmed cases of coronavirus. But testing there is extremely limited, with just one lab able to analyze tests for the entire country.

The border with Iran, where more than 19,000 people have tested positive as of Friday, is famously porous.

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In an effort to prevent troops in the U.S.-led Resolute Support mission from getting COVID-19, Gen. Scott Miller announced this past week that deployments into the country will be paused as officials develop a protocol for screening new arrivals. That means that some troops who were scheduled to leave might have to stay longer, Miller said.

It’s unclear whether the pause will have a significant effect on the U.S. military’s ability to draw down to 8,600 troops by the 135-day timeline laid out in the deal with the Taliban. International members of the coalition are also required to draw down by a commensurate amount.

U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett tweeted this past week that officials “continue to execute the ordered drawdown to 8600” even as they work on ways “to reduce the risks of COVID-19 to those deployed.”

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg similarly said Thursday that alliance officials “continue to implement the decision to reduce the number of NATO personnel in Afghanistan.”

“At the same time, we will make sure that we do that in a way which is responsible and which protects the health and the safety of our personnel, which is always our top priority,” Stoltenberg added.

Weinbaum said an inability to relocate troops during the coronavirus crisis “might obviously affect the drawdown,” but added the bigger impediment continues to be whether the Taliban lives up to its commitments.

Scott Worden, director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the Pentagon can mobilize very quickly after it has a plan, so he does not see the pause as “a significant obstacle at this point.”

In addition to his reticence for the prisoner swap, Ghani remains locked in a power struggle with his chief political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, which also poses a challenge to getting talks with the Taliban started.

In February, Ghani was declared the winner of Afghanistan’s September elections, and he was inaugurated earlier this month. But Abdullah continues to dispute the election results and has vowed to form a parallel government, holding his own inauguration the same day as Ghani’s.

In several Twitter threads this past week, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad pleaded for Afghan leaders to set aside their differences amid the coronavirus outbreak.

“It is time for Afghans to compromise and put their differences aside to resolve the political crisis resulting from elections and dual inaugurations,” Khalilzad tweeted. “This crisis undermines security. Coronavirus poses a mortal threat and requires Afghans to put their country, and its people, first. It is a matter of life and death.”

In another thread Friday to mark Nowruz, Ghani said the “best gift” Afghanistan’s leaders can give their people is “an agreement on an inclusive government and end the political crisis.”

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He also urged them to “take the needed steps to take advantage of historic opportunity for peace” and “work together including the Taliban to contain and take care of the people from the scourge of the coronavirus.”

Khalilzad also reiterated the U.S. call for prisoner releases, tweeting that coronavirus makes the issue “urgent.”

“Technical teams from both sides can work together and focus on technical steps to begin prisoner releases as soon as possible. I will participate in the initial meetings,” he tweeted Wednesday. “While [it is] preferable to meet face-to-face, Coronavirus and the resulting travel restrictions likely requires virtual engagement for now.”

Despite the tragedy of coronavirus and the likelihood of the peace process stalling, there could be one silver lining: Both Weinbaum and Worden expressed hope that Afghanistan could see a reduction in violence as the government and Taliban focus more on fighting the virus.

Worden was somewhat skeptical the Taliban’s calculations will be affected by the spread of the virus given the group “has viewed civilian targets as legitimate and the use of IEDs in crowded places as a means of advancing their agenda.”

Still, he said, “the greater concern that people have for their own health would tend to reduce the motivations for violence.”

“So humanitarian pause in the conflict is, I think, imperative,” Worden said. “I see the coronavirus issue advancing a continuation of the reduction in violence, which started before the U.S.-Taliban agreement was signed, a little bit more than I see it affecting the prisoner release issue.”