Afghanistan Peace Agreement And Covid-19: A Tragic Irony

 By Ankur Banga
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The year 2020 began on a hope and a fear, the hope of achieving peace in Afghanistan and fears of an impending health crisis in China. The existence of an unknown cause of respiratory infection detected in Wuhan was first reported to the WHO country office in China on 31 Dec 2019 and the outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International concern on 30 Jan 2020. While an emerging crisis was unfolding in China, US was focusing on securing an elusive peace agreement with the Taliban in Dec 2019. The negotiations continued leading to a seven-day partial ceasefire which began on 22 Feb 2020. Post this ceasefire, a peace agreement was signed in Doha, Qatar on 29 Feb 2020 which led to the process of formalising an honorable exit for US from a prolonged quagmire.

Pak remains the biggest beneficiary of the peace agreement by virtue of its leverage with the Taliban and in regaining its mojo with USA. Since 1979, Pak has abetted domestic instability and violence in Afghanistan in some form or other. It craftily played up a decisive role in the subjugation of a superpower USSR by providing the US with a golden opportunity to win a major victory in the Cold War era. The godsend opportunity also presented a concept of elusive strategic depth against arch rival India. Pakistan’s strategy was premised on Islamist groups fluctuating between political stakeholders and terror outfits to safeguard Pakistan’s interests in the region[1]. While supporting and arming a primitive Taliban regime, its continued to play a double game by engaging all influencing players. The policy of ‘running with hare & hunting with hounds’ enabled it to further its national interests. The events post 9/11 and GWOT further enabled Pak to exploit its geo-strategic location while maintaining its linkages with the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Haqqani network, and many other groups.

Since the US inclination to achieve a dignified exit under Trump become more pronounced, Pak managed to convince US of its inevitability to the peace process. It actively facilitated talks by releasing Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban from custody and manoevured to center stage for a possible détente. With a lot riding on its global reputation, Pak managed to pull an ‘elusive rabbit from hat’ moment executed on 29 Feb 2020 in theform of a peace agreement. Mullah Baradar, chief negotiator of
Taliban made a special mention of Pakistan in his thank you address which also included China, Russia, Iran but skipped India. the 2nd largest donor of foreign aid. The spoiler status of Pakistan makes it a necessary evil that has to be endured by all stake-holders.

Pakistan stands to gain maximum with a weak & pliable neighbor that can be influenced once the Taliban gets into power-sharing arrangements and a possible legitimate government by the backdoor. As Lt Gen HS Panag puts it aptly ‘Defeat of US in Afghan is apparently the finest hour of Pak statecraft’, Never in History, a Nation has plotted and actual abetted the defeat of a superpower and yet continued to enjoy its goodwill’.[2]

Come Mar 2020, the COVID-19 has turned into a global pandemic engulfing more than 190 countries, disrupting economics and lives of citizens world over, leaving behind a tragic tale of human sufferings in terms of thousands of deaths and a staring financial depression. China’s conduct during origin, spread & successful containment has been largely questionable. With its ‘great firewall of China’ and the authoritarian system it did a great disservice to a global common i.e. global public health by a deliberate cover up of scope & nature of an emerging health crisis. Despite accusations from World over especially from Trump who termed COVID-19 as ‘Chinese Virus’, China has steadfastly obscured its role in letting the spread of virulent strain beyond its borders. Though the local level machinery may be blamed initially for hiding the magnitude of ramifications of COVID-19, the overarching system prevailing in China seems largely responsible given the way the party regime functions.

The lessons learned post outbreak of SARS in 2002 & 2003 though absorbed were proved ineffective due to the fears of local monitoring bureaucracy for bringing country & entire system to disrepute by their independent and free reporting of a crisis in making. Chinese government acted fallaciously and blocked all possible information and pre-warnings as an accustomed response. After a rusted initial response the party with an iron fist took all measures to ensure that the spread does not take place within China but did not place curbs on free movement outside China to project a semblance of control and normalcy. Chinese people continued to travel globally for the Lunar New Year holidays and became the unsuspecting vectors for its spread. The world probably lost some crucial time to set its house in order and take proactive steps to counter the spread aggressively. Simultaneously, China launched a disinformation campaign to target arch-rival US by stating that US Army had introduced the virus during the conduct of World Military Games in Wuhan in Oct 2019 as tweeted by Lijian Zhao, Foreign Ministry spokesperson. In hindsight measures instituted by the Chinese government have been successful to arrest the spread and control it with relatively less damage as compared to other developed countries. But there remains serious doubts about the figures being quoted by China and number of deaths. As per some reports, the figure may go up to 42,000, ten times the reported figure.[3] There are no surprises that UNSC under Chairmanship of China for the month of Mar 2020 did nothing to discuss this unprecedented challenge to world security and public safety, unlike previous precedences at the time of Ebola and HIV/AIDS outbreak. In fact, China with the active support of Russia & South Africa blocked an effort by Estonia to initiate a discussion.[4]

Whatever may be the final scale of destruction, the image of China as an emerging global power has suffered serious damage. But the travesty is that China’s culpability has now been given a conscious spin of being a role model state in effectively containing the spread, restoring normalcy, and ability to come to the aid of affected nations including the US. COVID-19 has become a new game of geopolitics and geoeconomics to tilt the balance of power in its favor. The unfortunate happenings in Europe, Iran, and US have further been looked upon as an opportunity to play a savior in absence of viable alternatives and tattered reputation of established leaders due to their initial weak responses. Beijing’s assistance could help fog memories of how pandemic first started.[5] While the narrative is largely being peddled for cooling off domestic criticism for its initial handling of the crisis, it is also to sow an ‘Alternate fact’ as part of its ancient wisdom. To extrapolate Gen Panag’s quote in the context of COVID-19 “Never in History a Nation has lied and abetted the loss of innocent lives and yet continued to make efforts to enjoy its goodwill’.

The Afghanistan peace agreement and COVID-19 are seminal events with a shared commonality wherein both the leading players having played irresponsibly leading to turmoil and destruction are now unabashedly trying to be an apostle of peace & a messiah in face of an ironical tragedy. The crises and behavior of both countries showcase the viral statecraft founded on twin pillars of deceit and disinformation. It should not be forgotten that premature declaration and celebration of victory can be risky and embarrassing. The continued violence like an attack on Kabul Gurudwara and continuous targeting of ANDSF soldiers by ISIS/ISKP, Taliban & ISI proxies showcases the fragility of the peace achieved. The challenges in terms of political rivalry between two governments led by Ghani & Abdullah, contentious terms of the agreement, chances of fragments of Taliban turning more nationalistic, future of Pakistan Taliban are most glaring. Once the chaos and disorder post COVID-19 and Afghanistan peace agreement settles down, the scale of economic destruction and loss of lives will dictate the future course of international affairs and relations.

Both countries have attempted to disguise their leverage as soft power in terms of Pakistan flaunting its Islamic identity, historical and cultural links with Afghanistan and China unleashing its medical supplies, essential equipment, medical staff assistance to seek goodwill of victims. However, soft power depends on credibility, and when governments are perceived as manipulative and information is seen as propaganda, credibility is destroyed.[6] The worldwide churning expected in the balance of power ahead remains uncertain and insecurities breeding on the distrust and lack of credibility might pull away from the global opinion from these self-professed victors. The tight embrace as showcased by Pakistan’s refusal to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan despite stringent domestic rage, well-publicised visit of President Arif Alvi’s to China among global isolation to showcase solidarity and Chinese reciprocating with the grant of tons of medical emergency supplies to fight COVID-19 may well continue in absence of any true friends once the dust settles down.

William Shakespeare had said in his play The Tempest: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows”. Whether the potential raging tempest in Afghanistan and COVID-19 will bring unforeseen misery to these two regimes (one where an Army owns a Nation and other where a Party owns an Army) or these strange bedfellows will be forced to come forth and live up to the global expectations as responsible nations; it is too soon to know.

End Notes: 

[1] the diplomat.com/2020, Did Pakistan Win the Afghanistan War? By Kunwar Khuldune Shahid  Mar 31, 2020

[2] theprint.in; Delhi should face new Afghanistan realities by Lt Gen HS Panag (Retd), 05 Mar 2020.

[3] Dailymail.co.uk/news by Chris Pleasance, 31 Mar 2020.

[4] hindustantimes.com ; UN won’t discuss Covid-19; China blocks, Shishir Gupta on Mar 27, 2020.

[5] atlanticcouncil.org; Is China winning the coronavirus resoponse narrative in the EU?, Ian Brzenski, 25 Mar 2020.

[6] The Future of Power by Joseph S.Nye Jr Public Affairs, New York, 2011.