For the Taliban, the Pandemic Is a Ladder

The Islamist group is using the coronavirus crisis for propaganda—with potentially dire consequences for those living under its control.

Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the U.S.-Afghan peace deal in Laghman province, Afghanistan, on March 2.
Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the U.S.-Afghan peace deal in Laghman province, Afghanistan, on March 2. Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

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In late March, the Taliban released an unusual video. Instead of the usual imagery of fighters in formation or training, the footage showed members of the Islamist group in surgical masks as they conducted door-to-door temperature checks and distributed hand sanitizer. A heavily accented voice-over in English promised that the Taliban health commission had the pandemic under control. The narrator claimed that the Taliban had established public health information teams, a dispensary campaign, and even quarantine centers.

This is but one example in a string of videos, announcements, and restrictions the Taliban have undertaken in response to the unfolding global crisis. Several weeks prior, the Taliban announced that returnees from Iran, where the virus was then rapidly spreading, would be forced to quarantine in their homes for two weeks. The Afghan government, by contrast, was facing growing criticism for having taken little action to screen the 15,000 people entering its borders each day.

Insurgents typically excel at exploiting state weaknesses and crises. The counterinsurgency theorist David Kilcullen argues that such groups, locked in a battle for competitive control with the incumbent government, only have to appear to be less incompetent and marginally more responsive to generate legitimacy. Appear is the operative word. The New York Times reports that Taliban officials summoned health workers and journalists to a meeting in the eastern province of Nangarhar, where a medical worker in a full protective suit displayed a thermometer gun. On closer inspection, however, the device turned out to be a prop taped together from scraps of plastic and wood.Media coverage of the pandemic has featured numerous accounts of armed groups taking action against the coronavirus.

Media coverage of the pandemic has featured numerous accounts of armed groups taking action against the coronavirus—or at least finding ways to capitalize on it. The National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia announced lockdown measures, preemptively justifying abuses against civilians by warning that the fighters may feel “forced to kill people in order to preserve lives” where they have not “respected the orders to prevent COVID-19.” Al-Shabab in Somalia and the Houthis in Yemen have blamed the spread of infections locally on their battlefield adversaries. The Islamic State issued sharia directives on hand-washing and preventing transmission but has also suggested the disease is divine punishment. Pictures have circulated of drug cartels in Mexico distributing medical supplies; MS-13 in El Salvador reportedly enforced a curfew; and a gang in Rio de Janeiro warned that “if the government is unable to manage, organized crime resolves [the problem].”

One analyst recently warned that weak state responses to the virus could help “terrorist groups to cement a reputation as competent public servants.” This overestimates the capacity of most armed groups. While terrorists and criminal gangs are well equipped to exploit the pandemic for propaganda or coercive purposes, they are woefully unprepared to respond to an actual health crisis—let alone the wider ripple effects on the economy and other sectors. Even if they create shadow governments or routinely capture aid projects and state services, few armed groups have the skills or expertise to provide health services all on their own. (Hezbollah, which has mobilized thousands of medical staff in response to the virus in Lebanon, is a rare exception.)

Wealthy and well-prepared nations have struggled to implement effective pandemic responses. If even the world’s most advanced health care systems have been quickly overwhelmed by the speed of the coronavirus’s spread, how will those in the most fragile and violent contexts cope? Ultimately, civilians living under the control of armed groups will disproportionately suffer. Violence limits access to health care, strains supply chains, and spurs health professionals to flee for safer areas. Entire communities can be cut off from health services, and the disruption can be so severe that local health systems collapse. Recent data suggests that a third of Kabul’s population is already infected with the coronavirus, and the Afghan government estimates that 110,000 people could eventually die. A diplomat I spoke to privately estimated that the toll could be closer to six times that amount but doubted that we would ever know the actual count given the general lack of access to health care and poor data on deaths in the country.Weak state responses to the virus could help “terrorist groups to cement a reputation as competent public servants.”

When the United Nations called for an immediate global cease-fire on April 2, armed groups in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Myanmar, the Philippines, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen declared that they would temporarily stop fighting to facilitate a response to the pandemic. While these pledges may have reduced fighting in some places, most declarations were unilateral and never matched in commitments from other conflict parties required to stop the fighting. In Colombia, the ELN ended its cease-fire pledge with recriminations when the government failed to reciprocate. Two of the agreed multilateral cease-fires, in Libya and Yemen, were quickly breached. A temporary truce between the Philippine government and the New People’s Army expired in April and descended into mutual accusations of manipulation and violations.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban have long refused demands for a cease-fire—at least against local forces—and the pandemic hasn’t altered their stance. On the contrary, the Taliban have increased their attacks in recent weeks. The Afghan Ministry of Public Health has warned that health workers will not be able to do their jobs, and civilians will not be able to access services, if violence continues to escalate. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahed said the group would initiate a cease-fire in affected regions “if, God forbid, the outbreak happens in an area where we control.” But this has already happened: The Taliban control vast swaths of Herat province, the epicenter of Afghanistan’s outbreak. Yet the U.S. government and Afghan health ministry publicly praised the Taliban for their efforts to raise awareness and facilitate health work.

There is a strong and deeply hopeful narrative that disasters and emergencies can provide openings for peace. Some disasters have created new avenues to end conflicts, such as the negotiated peace in Aceh that followed the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But such occurrences are rare. Some analysts suggest that the pandemic is deepening polarization, while others caution that it may increase the risk of miscalculation and conflict escalation. It is essential to continue to push for a worldwide humanitarian pause, but the sad reality is that it is unlikely to help many millions of civilians living under the control of armed groups.The Taliban will likely continue to exploit the pandemic for their own ends.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has rightly urged global unity in mobilizing “every ounce of energy” to defeat the pandemic. This must include more robust efforts to talk to armed actors about their obligations to stop the spread of the virus. The world needs to do this regardless of whether these groups are terrorists or criminals or whether doing so might legitimate them in the short term. This dialogue may lead to humanitarian pauses in fighting, but it might also mean negotiating safe passage guarantees for health workers, encouraging coordination with government health care entities, or merely talking to armed groups about appropriate health messaging. If they control territory and aspire to some form of legitimacy, they have an essential role to play in lessening the pandemic’s toll—one for which they must also be held to account.

In Afghanistan, humanitarian engagement may prove more productive than the political pressure strategy focused on a cease-fire. Aid donors and agencies would do well to openly acknowledge that the insurgency has an essential role to play and call on it to take concrete, specific actions to halt the virus’s spread and facilitate health work. If they refuse to cooperate, however, the Taliban must be publicly criticized for their complicity in the deaths that are sure to follow.

In the absence of such an effort, the Taliban will likely continue to exploit the pandemic for their own ends—at least until the crisis begins to affect them directly. They may start to take it more seriously once their own people begin to die, but by then it will be too late.

Ashley Jackson is the co-director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Groups at the Overseas Development Institute. Twitter: @a_a_jackson

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