The Taliban said Thursday that they were willing to temporarily suspend fighting against the Afghan forces in areas hit by the coronavirus, rejecting news reports that the group could declare a truce amid the pandemic.
The Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, in a statement said that he had been misquoted by the Associated Press, which reported Wednesday that the group was ready to declare a cease-fire in areas of Afghanistan under its control if they were hit by the pandemic.
"God forbid, if there is an outbreak of coronavirus in areas under our control, we will have control over the situation, then we will not fight in that particular area so that health workers deliver assistance to that area," Mujahid said in a tweet, stressing that the suspension of fighting in those areas was to ensure safe passage to relief groups that deliver aid under the threat of the contagious virus.
Afghanistan had reported 239 positive cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday, with the majority of the cases, around 184, reported in western Herat province near Iran, where the Taliban maintain some control in rural areas. The U.N., U.S., EU and the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) have all called on the Taliban to agree to a cease-fire with the Afghan government so that the country can focus on containing the further spread of the pandemic.
Some experts say while a cessation of hostilities will allow Kabul to commit its resources to combat the virus, the Taliban group could well use the situation as an opportunity to further exhaust the Afghan forces and press the government into more concessions.
"They are not a part of Afghan society or its state structure or politics, and so the political power that they have comes from threat of violence and the way they actually use the violence. And so, for them, this violence is their primary leverage," Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, told VOA.
Watkins said the Taliban in the past have repeatedly disregarded calls for an armistice with the government, which the group considers a puppet of the West. However, he said the group could ultimately accept "limited cooperation" with the government by allowing international health organizations to operate in its areas. Such a move, he argued, would be used as a projection of power by the group, which has been increasingly interested in "signs and symbols that show them as a legitimate power in the country."
The Taliban have said they welcome the operation of international health organizations in areas of their control to combat the coronavirus. The Taliban's leadership in recent weeks accepted the International Committee of the Red Cross to facilitate a proposed prisoner swap between the group and the Afghan government.
According to Mohammed Moheq, Afghanistan's ambassador in Egypt, the Taliban will "only agree to a cease-fire if the virus hits their ranks." He said the Taliban should learn from religious authorities in countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who ardently came out in support of their governments' measures to combat coronavirus.
Afghanistan reported its first positive case of COVID-19 on February 23. Since then, Afghan officials have repeatedly called on the Taliban to agree to a nationwide cease-fire to concentrate on the pandemic.
Wahid Mayar, a spokesman for the Afghan Health Ministry, told VOA that his government was working with its partners, some 26 NGOs, to provide needed health services, including in areas controlled by the Taliban.
"Cease-fire is overall good for the country; however, we do need their [Taliban] support until a cease-fire is reached," said Mayar, adding that "without their support, it would be very difficult for us to fight coronavirus."
He said that the Taliban had interfered in health workers' activities in the past. But where an agreement has been reached to allow safe movement of health workers, the ministry has been able to reach civilians in most isolated areas.
"Even right now, some of our clinics are closed by the Taliban. And sometimes they prevent vaccination campaigns in Helmand, Farah and Kandahar provinces, but after the negotiation of elders, tribal elders and religious scholars, they have been helpful."
Last month, Afghanistan's health minister, Ferozuddin Feroz, warned that coronavirus could kill some 110,000 Afghans if its spread was not controlled. The government has already closed schools, banned large gatherings and imposed other restrictions in several cities, including the capital, Kabul.
With the large number of Afghans returning from coronavirus-hit countries like Iran and limited health infrastructure, health officials admit that positive COVID-19 cases could be much higher than reported.
Mayar warned that if people did not take lockdown guidelines seriously, they might call soldiers to be deployed in cities.
"Right now, we have not used soldiers, but when we see the success stories of other countries, eventually their role will be very significant and crucial," he added.
In areas under the Taliban where the government cannot enforce its regulations, WHO's Afghanistan team leader for health emergencies, Mohammad Dauod, said his health organization could turn to its provincial health surveillance and polio vaccination teams for help.
"Our polio teams are active in the areas controlled by the Taliban. If there are cases in those areas, these teams can collect samples and send them to laboratories for testing," Dauod said.