As Afghanistan grapples with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Taliban has sought to both exert control through violent attacks and leverage the pandemic to their advantage as part of a cynical “hearts and minds” campaign. The Afghan government’s inadequate response to COVID-19 has given the Taliban an opportunity to present itself as a better alternative – a concerning development that stands to reverse the country’s modest democratic gains.  

With peace talks stalled, the Taliban has made moves to assist both domestic and international efforts to flatten the curve, bolstering their image at a time when the government’s response is being questioned. The group has conducted workshops on preventing the spread of COVID-19 and distributed medical supplies and public health guidelines in Taliban strongholds that the Afghan government cannot access; they have set up quarantine centers to isolate those suspected of carrying the virus and used social media to advertise their public health awareness campaigns; and they have allowed the World Health Organization and other international organizations to operate in Taliban-controlled territories. For these efforts, the Taliban has received tweets of appreciation from both the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and the U.S. State Department.

Whatever message of good faith these efforts were meant to convey has, of course, been undermined by the wave of attacks unleashed in recent weeks. The group may be betting that a combined campaign of winning “hearts and minds” through efforts to tackle the virus and the spate of violence aimed at reminding the population of the consequence of defying their rule will cement their power base and accelerate the retreat of U.S. forces.

Building a strong Afghan state capable of managing COVID-19 and reaching a peace deal with the Taliban requires a unified government that is accountable and responsive to citizen needs. Since its creation, the joint government between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah has been stymied by infighting rooted in disputes over the election results that brought Ghani to power.  

Not only has the government’s management of COVID-19 been disjointed, corruption also appears to be undermining the national response to the pandemic. As Afghanistan’s poor healthcare system fails to meet the demands of COVID-19, the country has received millions of dollars of foreign aid to supplement its medical facilities –  yet hospitals still lack medical supplies, ventilators are allegedly disappearing, healthcare workers aren’t receiving paychecks and testing remains limited. Despite allocating $155.7 million to combat the pandemic, the Afghan government has spent less than a third of its budget on COVID-19, leaving many Afghans to wonder where funding has gone.

Corruption and ineffective governance opens the door for the Taliban to offer support at a time when Afghans sorely need it – further laying the groundwork for the group to regain control of the country either in whole or in part, and to reverse the (albeit limited) steps the country has made toward democracy since the Taliban was overthrown nearly two decades ago.  

Creating an accountable government is Afghanistan’s strongest defense against COVID-19 and a Taliban resurgence. It’s also the county’s best hope for gaining momentum in the Afghan government-Taliban peace talks and moving toward a more democratic Afghanistan. If the government remains hampered by internal disputes and corruption, progress against the pandemic and towards peace talks will only continue to stall.

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