The world is facing an extraordinary crisis with labyrinthine implications for socioeconomic, political, physical, and mental health. While attention has focused on developed countries and their struggles to contain the pandemic, it is equally important to consider the implications of COVID-19 for fragile states such as Afghanistan. The country already faces staggering numbers of internal displacement and is a major global source of outward migration. How will the pandemic impact Afghanistan’s layers of insecurity and economic challenges? Could this virus end up being even more lethal than terrorism and war?
Research on the push factors behind outward migration and displacement in Afghanistan indicates that Afghans leave home for numerous reasons. War, economic problems, poverty, corruption, insecurity, dissatisfaction with the government, and a crisis of confidence about the future coalesce to drive migration and displacement.
Situated between the poorly integrated regions of Central Asia and South Asia, Afghanistan has been suffering from long-term insecurity and socioeconomic instability. World Bank data indicates that over 39 percent of Afghans live in extreme poverty with high levels of unemployment, estimated to be at least 30 percent. More than half the population is under the age of 20, and an estimated 400,000 young people enter the job market annually, struggling to find work. Ubiquitous corruption, especially since 2001, and over four decades of conflict have decimated Afghanistan’s incoherent infrastructure — including the health sector.
Despite attempts at improvement, Afghanistan still ranks 130th out of 195 on the Global Health Security Index. Incapacity in the health sector is not the only issue. Serious health issues, including diabetes, high blood pressure, tuberculosis, and malnourishment, as well as pervasive drug addiction and lung infections mean the population is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.
Aid dependency, mainly on the United States, deepens the challenges. Approximately 66 percent of Afghanistan’s aid budget in 2017-2018 was funded through international donor support. About half of Afghanistan’s budget is spent on security, principally to fight against the protracted Taliban insurgency. As we write, Afghanistan has the capacity to conduct only 600 daily coronavirus tests nationally (400 in the capital, Kabul, and 100 each in Herat and Nangarhar provinces) while 444 confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been registered. Yet the actual numbers are likely to be significantly higher.
Conditions for the spread of the virus are enhanced by the proximity of Iran, one of the worst-affected countries, since the first detection of the virus in Herat in February. Millions of Afghans have lived in Iran as migrants and refugees for decades. But fears of the coronavirus and reports that Afghans have been refused testing and treatment in Iranian hospitals have caused an exodus. At least 200,000 Afghans — a number growing steadily — have returned from Iran. Officials in Herat fear half of the returnees might be infected with the coronavirus, though not all have been tested. Afghanistan’s first 22 positive cases were Afghans who returned from Iran. There are limited screening facilities at porous border-crossings. Unmonitored travel of those who fall through the net means countless untraceable contacts throughout the country.
The Afghan government predicts COVID-19 could infect 25 million people in a country of 35.5 million, causing possibly over 100,0000 deaths. Afghans from all walks of life (celebrities, politicians, sports personalities, government departments — even the Taliban) have mobilized on social media, TV channels, and through public information campaigns, but not everyone heeds the message, especially outside major cities. Extreme poverty and dependence on daily wages for survival, coupled with illiteracy, inadequate water and sanitary facilities, and crowded housing arrangements, make it impossible to impose social-distancing and quarantine measures.
Political fragmentation in Kabul is a major concern for most Afghans. Parallel inauguration ceremonies on March 9 by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah — although Ghani effectively runs the government and was declared the winner — punctured hopes for stability following the presidential election last September. The failure to resolve the impasse between the rivals led to the U.S. announcement to withdraw $1 billion in aid. Washington is threatening to cut an additional $1 billion from the annual $4.5 billion aid package in 2021 if the deadlock continues.
Even before the pandemic, donor fatigue was evident in Afghanistan. Now the United States and Europe are reeling from the cost of the virus. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates the worldwide economic cost of COVID-19 to be at least $4.1 trillion. In only a few weeks, the virus has caused unprecedented levels of uncertainty across major world economies, raising the specter of an economic downturn that could prove more destructive than the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Before the virus hit the United States, the Trump administration was devising its troop withdrawal strategy in Afghanistan, as demonstrated by the deal-signing with the Taliban in Doha on February 29. The agreement would eventually lead to U.S. and NATO troop withdrawals and possibly a drastic contraction in development aid and funding for Afghan security forces. But progress on talks with the Taliban has stalled. Restrictions on movement and meetings physically, coupled with the frostiness of relations between the U.S. State Department and Kabul at present, mean it is unlikely Washington will play an interlocutor role in the intra-Afghan phase of the talks.
But what could a pandemic-induced economic crash mean for Afghanistan?
As aid and military support shrink, COVID-19 could create the ideal petri dish for insecurity, starvation, rocketing unemployment, commodity shortages, deepened violence, criminality, and the ascendency of unsavoury non-state actors. Amid the chaos of responding to the coronavirus, it is hard to foresee a post-pandemic world. For countries like Afghanistan, the outcome of the current phase of international support will determine how it survives — or does not.
If the United States and other international donors abandon Afghanistan at this critical juncture, the country could become the epicenter of the pandemic. It could face, at worst, a potential state failure, but cutting aid and funding for the state would mean, at best, an even more fragile and dysfunctional state. There will be enduring negative consequences for the interests and national security of other countries, including Afghanistan’s immediate and regional neighbors, Europe, and the United States. Islamic State (IS) and other violent non-state actors could manipulate weak governance and turn parts of Afghanistan into ungoverned territories where security threats foment for years. Ultimately, the world will confront a deepened refugee crisis. But this time it will be overlaid by the virulent threat of continued infection and the boomerang potential of COVID-19.
Hameed Hakimi is a research associate for the Asia-Pacific Program and Europe Program at Chatham House. He tweets at @hameedhakimi. Dr. Marissa Quie is a fellow and director of studies in human, social, and political sciences (HSPS) – Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge. She tweets at @marissa_quie. These views are the authors’ alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.