ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A lingering dispute over Afghanistan’s presidential election and an outbreak of coronavirus in the country appear to have complicated further an already troubled effort the United States is making to help find a negotiated end to nearly 19 years of war.
Afghan officials found five new cases of coronavirus Sunday, increasing the national tally of confirmed cases to at least 16. There are fears the number is likely to grow in the wake of increased number of Afghan pilgrims and refugees returning from neighboring Iran, one of the worst-hit by the global pandemic.
After having negotiated and signed a landmark peace-building deal with the Taliban in Qatar two weeks ago, U.S. chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad flew to Kabul to help in arranging an inclusive Afghan team to engage in negotiations with the insurgent group to move the process forward.
Instead, Khalilzad has since been mostly busy mediating the political dispute between incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah, as both claim to have won the September 28th presidential election and held competing inaugurations last Monday.
The U.S. envoy has repeatedly met with both the presidential claimants but there appears to be no progress toward ending the political impasse.
NATO senior civilian representative to the country Nick Kay in a video message released via Twitter on Saturday called on Afghan leaders to urgently find a compromise and solve their political differences.
“As the coronavirus sweeps the world causing public health crisis and potential economic crisis…it is strange that the political leadership cannot find a way to resolve their differences and unite the country both in the interests of public health but also peace,” Kay said.
Meanwhile, Afghan and Taliban officials have accused each other of launching fresh battlefield attacks in parts of the country, which adds to problems facing the implementation of the U.S.-Taliban agreement.
Officials in southern Kandahar province told VOA that a suspected Taliban infiltrator killed at least seven Afghan security forces early Sunday, the latest in a series of insider attacks that have killed thousands of government security personnel over the years.
The Taliban claims its loyalists, who have infiltrated Afghan forces, carry out these attacks before returning to insurgent ranks.
Rift over prisoner swap delays talks
The landmark deal was supposed to lead to further reduction in violence to pave the way for the opening of intra-Afghan peace negotiations on March 10. But disagreements over a prisoner swap between the Afghan government and the Taliban have delayed the much-sought peace dialogue.
Kabul was supposed to release up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 detainees, mostly Afghan security forces, in insurgent custody, ahead of the negotiations under the U.S.-Taliban pact.
But Ghani last week allowed for a conditional release of 1,500 prisoners starting this past Saturday, saying the remaining inmates would be freed in batches, subject to a reduction in Taliban violence and opening of intra-Afghan talks.
The Taliban swiftly rejected the plan and demanded immediate unconditional release of all the prisoners.
“It is clearly stated in the text of the [ U.S.-Taliban] agreement that all of our 5,000 prisoners would be freed unconditionally and before the commencement of intra-Afghan peace negotiations Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told VOA.
On Sunday, an Afghan presidential aide Waheed Omar reiterated while talking to reporters in Kabul the government would not release all 5,000 insurgent prisoners at once and without guarantees freed inmates would not return to the battlefield.
“We are still in the process of examining the lists of Taliban inmates, identifying them and looking into the nature of their crimes. We have a legal system in place and we cannot simply close our eyes and free Taliban prisoners,” Omar noted.
The presidential aide stressed insurgent prisoners would be freed gradually and subject to progress in talks with the Taliban. Omar declined to speculate on how long the process would take, strengthening widespread concerns intra-Afghan talks are unlikely to begin any time soon.
US troop drawdown underway
For its part of the deal signed with the Taliban, Washington begun on Monday a “conditions-based” drawdown of U.S. forces from the country. The Trump administration has agreed to withdraw all American and allied forces within 14 months. In return, Taliban leaders have pledged not to harbor on Afghan soil terrorist groups that seek to target the United States.
The insurgent group is also bound to seek a political reconciliation with Afghan stakeholders, including all political groups and civil society, on ending decades of hostilities and how to share power in post-war Afghanistan.
Coronavirus challenges peace deal
Professor Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official, noted in a series of tweets that the prevalence of the coronavirus in Afghanistan is unknown, given the weakness of healthcare and lack of testing.
He noted that the emerging threat to public health greatly complicates efforts to overcome the already significant obstacles to the implementation of the Afghan peace.
“There are compelling public health arguments to end hostilities. To prevent spread of the pandemic, all forces should observe a ceasefire in place and confine themselves to quarters or even disband and return home, since concentrations of forces pose risks of contagion,” Rubin stressed.
Kabul has blamed nationals returning from Iran for importing the virus from the neighboring country, where the pandemic disease has killed more than 600 people and infected thousands of others. The Afghan government has closed all educational institutions across the country, banned gathering at public places and sporting events to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
The Afghan refugee minister informed the parliament Sunday that the virus has killed at least 10 Afghan refugees in Iran and reportedly infected many more.
Critics fear an ill-equipped and deteriorating public healthcare system in war-ravaged Afghanistan is not capable of dealing the emerging threat to public health.