01 April 2020

COVID-19 is seriously affecting the ongoing and future operations of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission from Afghanistan

Daniel Ilie

As the new coronavirus spread became a global issue, it was just a matter of time for the COVID-19 to get to the International Coalition’s members from Afghanistan. COVID-19 is a new corona virus stem, unidentified in human before the focal point from Wuhan, China, which belongs to the same virus family as SARS- the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, but it is not identical to it. This is a respiratory virus which firstly gets spread through the contact with an infected individual, after inhaling particles from cough, sneeze, saliva or rheum. People can get COVID-19 also by simply touching infected objects or worktable and then putting their hand to their nose, eyes or mouth.

Image source: MApN

According to a statement of the Resolute Support Mission, led by NATO in Afghanistan, on March 24th 2020, there were already 4 COVID-19 positive cases among the members of the International Coalition. They are all new in the theatre of operations (TO) from Afghanistan and were in a centre for preventive screening when they turned symptomatic, therefore they were placed in isolation and got tested. The entire personnel the four members were in contact with was also identified and placed in quarantine. Furthermore, tens of people who seemed to face similar symptoms were in isolation, getting medical care.

Given this context, the Resolute Support Mission will also be affected and will have to take the necessary measures to adapt to new conditions of the operational environment.

The RSM is a non-combat NATO-led mission, whereat are participating 16.551 soldiers and civilians from 38 countries (NATO members and partners), planned, conducted and executed to help the Afghan security and defence forces and institutions (responsible, starting with January 2015, with providing Afghanistan’s security) in developing, in a tenable manner, the defence and security capacity of its own citizens.

797 Romanian soldiers participate at the Resolute Support Mission, at the efforts for Afghanistan’s stabilization and reconstruction. Among them, there are also SOF members who execute training, counselling and assistance mission for the Afghan national security and defence forces, precisely the Police Special Forces.

In a video teleconference with the leaders of the Afghan national security and defence forces, the commander of the Resolute Support Mission, US general Scott Miller, states that the “COVID-19 virus is important for everyone. It is affecting the entire planet and will affect both the coalition forces and the Afghan security and defence forces”.

On this occasion, Miller called on a ceasefire to be able to focus only on preventing the spread of COVID-19, stating: “Relatively to this virus, the main focus should be on preventing the spread, which is difficult even in normal circumstances, but almost impossible if we still have violence. All parts should reduce violence to focus on preventing the spread of this virus among our forces and the ones of the Afghan people”.

In fact, not long ago, the Resolute Support Mission commander was making an official statement on the necessity to review the International Coalition mission’s approach in Afghanistan (training, counselling, assistance of the Afghan national security and defence forces), so that the protection of its forces to be the first priority. In this file, there were mentioned some of the adaptation measures to the new operational conditions.  Among them, we have:

-intensifying the number of distance meetings – online – through technical communication methods and the decrease of face to face meetings, to minimum, with the Afghan partners;

-reviewing the posture in the dislocation bases of the international coalition – reorganization of perimeters to provide social (physical) distance and to limit the access inside the bases to the personnel that’s essential to the mission;

-the temporary closure of new troops’ dislocation in TO Afghanistan;

-the establishment, with NATO’s help and the contributory nations, of personnel’s screening protocols before the dislocation in TO Afghanistan, accordingly with WHO’s recommendation – to prevent the entrance of possibly affected people in the TO;

- the postponement of repatriation for the personnel that was going to be replaced to allow the normal continuation of the mission;

-keeping the personnel already dislocated in TO Afghanistan or who came back from furlough or vacation lately (around 1,500 people- soldiers, civilians and contractors) in preventive screening centers;

- isolating and treating the personnel with symptoms similar to seasonal flu;

-collecting and sending the tests of symptomatic people for validation at the Regional Medical Centre in Landstuhl, Germany, or other civil testing centres – within TO Afghanistan there is not certified laboratory to validate such tests for the International coalition members;

-leaders from all levels will estimate and establish the COVID-19 impact on the forces and the mission;

-members of the Resolute Support Mission will work with their Afghan partners to respond and implement most of these prevention measures among the National Afghan security and defence forces.

However, the coronavirus crisis got to Afghanistan and is raising many concerns, including related to a possible slowdown of the complete withdrawal of US and allied forces, according to the 14 months period established within the peace agreement between the US and the Taliban, on March 29th 2020.

And if that was not enough, it seems that the security situation in this country does not get any better, but on the contrary.  On March 25th 2020, it was executed a new complex attack in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, claimed later by the jihadist group Islamic State, which ended with 25 Afghan casualties and 8 people who got hurt. The Afghan Special Forces and Coalition’s forces immediately responded to this attack, which lasted almost 6 hours.  It all happened one day after the ceasefire call by all parts involved in the Afghanistan conflict, made by the Resolute Support Mission’s commander. The Talibans denied their involvement, and Afghan governmental sources accused the Haqqani system for executing the attack.

Therefore, the Resolute Support operations, including the withdrawal programs of troops outside the territory of Afghanistan, will hardly stay unaffected, even if the measures listed above will be implemented, as their effectiveness will have to be proved.

There are some hopes, though. The Afghan government is striving to make the expected efforts and the necessary intra-Afghan discussion with the Taliban’s representatives, already being established the 20 governmental negotiations. Recently, the special American representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, was expressing his hopes that such discussions will end in 100 days and will lead to a political solution of the complicated situation in Afghanistan, also opening the path towards the US forces’ withdrawal, in exchange of a strong provision from the Talibans to US and its allies.

In the meantime, the number of positive cases with COVID-19 is increasing in Afghanistan, there were recorded already the first fatalities among the population and, according to the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, most of the cases were registered among the people who returned from Iran, one of the countries that were strongly affected by the new coronavirus.

Given that sooner or later (with all measures) the virus’s spread will be a community one, the members of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces, as well as those of the International Coalition Forces, may be affected. We will see which are the effects and effectiveness of the preventive measures already implemented at the Resolute Support Mission level on the ongoing operations, but also on the future ones.

Many say the world will change dramatically after the coronavirus crisis passes. And because the crisis, in general, brings not only dangers and threats, but also opportunities, it may now be a good time for all actors involved in the Afghanistan conflict to sit at the negotiating table (even at distance, in the online space) to negotiate that political solution that will bring the much desired peace. It will all depend on how they look at and perceive this crisis, some as an obstacle, and others as an opportunity to stop the violence and change the rules of this far too long and bloody war.

One thing is for sure. The violence’s decrease will not just make this virus’s management crisis easier, but it will also ease the peace process’ efforts. Let’s hope God will give all the involved parts wisdom or, as Arabs say, InshAllah!

English version by Andreea Soare