In Afghanistan’s western Herat province, Governor Abdul Quayom Rahimi is bracing for the worst. Last week, Rahimi recorded 61 confirmed cases of coronavirus in his region, all in Afghans who had crossed the border from Iran. This week, that number doubled, and a now third of the cases are patients who had not traveled outside the country – an indication the virus is spreading freely. “I consider this the Wuhan of Afghanistan,” Rahimi says.
Like many governors in the U.S., Rahimi has found himself on the frontline of the effort to rally the Afghan government and citizens alike to pay attention to the growing threat coronavirus poses. Up to 2,000 Afghans cross the border from Iran, a global hot spot of the virus, every day into Herat, where there are just 10 ventilators, Rahimi says. Sixteen provincial doctors are already sick from the virus.
The governor has ordered factories to make masks and hand sanitizer, but he knows that COVID 19 will overcome whatever defenses he puts in place. “If it can do that to Iran and the rest of the world…I’m quite sure we will be overwhelmed in the coming weeks,” he said in a phone call Thursday from his home. “Our system is not very strong.”
With just under three hundred reported cases as of Friday, Afghanistan’s Minister of Health has predicted the virus could eventually infect up to 80% of the country, and kill at least 110,000 Afghans. A former western aid official says the international aid community fears that toll could be much higher, killing a million or more in a country of 37 million. To bolster its health-care system, hollowed out by decades of war, Afghanistan immediately needs as much as $2 billion to fight the virus, the former officials says. But the IMF says the country has budgeted just $25 million, so far.
Despite these projections, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shows no sign of reversing his decision late last month to slash $1 billion in aid to Kabul, a move designed to resolve a political impasse threatening the U.S.-brokered peace deal ahead of American presidential elections in November.
Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s Vice President, told TIME on Saturday that the State Department hasn’t explained exactly what will be cut, leaving the country in financial limbo as it braces for the pandemic. “We aren’t sure the U.S. has cut its assistance….It hasn’t been clarified with Kabul yet.”
The U.S. budgets roughly $4 billion in security assistance and more than $100 million dollars toward civilian assistance annually for Afghanistan, out of some $7 to $8 billion in international donor grants to the country, according to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). After Pompeo announced he was slashing aid, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told his national security team to cut $1 billion from their budget. Saleh said a review of Afghanistan’s budget is underway, and that the cash-strapped country will soon introduce “austerity measures” in both civilian and military sectors.
Pompeo’s aid gambit, delivered after a surprise visit to Kabul on March 23, was intended to force Ghani to find a compromise with his long-time political rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and clear the way for intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban and a staged withdrawal of roughly 12,000 U.S. troops. The talks were supposed to start in mid-March, but foundered in part over a post-election dispute in Afghanistan that saw Abdullah set up his own rival government in protest over alleged corruption in polls. The talks also stuttered due to a promise the Americans made to the Taliban without consulting Ghani: that Kabul would release 5,000 Taliban prisoners before talks would start. A surge in Taliban attacks didn’t help matters.
Pompeo’s dramatic gesture of pulling a quarter of the aid the U.S. gives to Afghanistan, and threatening to cut another $1 billion next year, was intended to shock the feuding politicians into getting back on track with Washington’s plans. The leaders haven’t reconciled, but Abdullah did approve Ghani’s delegation for the Taliban talks to come. A Taliban technical delegation is now in Kabul, negotiating face to face with Afghan officials for the release of the first batch of prisoners as a test case for more to come, two Afghan officials told TIME on Thursday. A Taliban spokesperson confirmed the meetings are happening, but complained progress is slow. All spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the confidential negotiations.
Pompeo on Tuesday called the progress “good news” — but not yet enough to restore the aid. “We will constantly re-evaluate our posture with respect to Afghanistan, not only the security assistance and humanitarian aid and assistance we provide to them.” He added that the U.S. had offered Afghanistan $15 million out of a $237 million fund set up to help foreign countries fight COVID 19.
Members of the international aid community, which have helped support Afghanistan for decades, are deeply concerned over Washington’s timing. On March 31, the UN Secretary-General’s Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan Ingrid Hayden called for more than $100 million in aid to fight the virus, warning of a devastating double-punch of the U.S. cut in assistance and the fact that “with the onslaught of COVID-19, many donors are likely to turn inwards to meet the needs of their own population.”
Afghanistan, for its part, doesn’t want to remain an aid-dependent nation. “The United States has been gracious and generous. They don’t owe us anything. We have to come up and rise up as a partner and not a recipient,” Saleh says.
Last fall, Ghani outlined to President Donald Trump on his first visit to the country his plans for Afghanistan to eventually become more financially independent. But absorbing the shock of losing that much aid overnight was already going to be tough, as the economy had started to slow since 2014, even with increases in U.S. and other international aid, according to SIGAR. The World Bank estimates the country will require at least $4.6 billion, to as much as $8.2 billion, of donor funding annually until at least 2024.
The $25 million Afghanistan has pledged to spend fighting the virus is just .1% of its annual gross domestic product of just under $20 billion. By contrast, many countries are already spending 20 to 30% of their GDP on battling the pandemic; even neighboring Pakistan is spending roughly 3%. If Afghanistan aimed for the middle ground, that would mean devoting 10%, or $2 billion, to rush in medical aid and supplies, and hand out enough money to keep its poorest from starving.
The country simply doesn’t have access to that kind of cash. To get it, the World Bank or IMF would have to make special exceptions to let it borrow what it needs against the $8 billion in reserves held in the Afghan Central Bank, as per terms of their assistance.
COVID-19 could reverse Afghanistan’s economic growth even further, lowering it by up to 2%, depending on how long the pandemic lasts, Saleh warns. He says the government is tackling the crisis with measures like social distancing, and also started public works projects to employ day wage earners during the crisis while keeping them far apart, and it’s also studying alternative uses for Afghan crops if they can’t be exported due to the pandemic.
The duel financial and public health crisis poses a serious threat to regional stability, observers say. “If the government collapses, which is made more likely if it doesn’t have sufficient cash to fight this…hundreds of thousands of infected refugees may well stream out,” says the former western aid official. An economist who advises governments and agencies supporting Afghanistan, he requested anonymity because he still works in the country.
The coronavirus is already changing life in Afghanistan. Herat’s capital was the first city in Afghanistan to go on lockdown; the capital Kabul followed. The Taliban has said it will allow government medical teams to enter areas it controls to treat virus-stricken patients. But many people continue to ignore the government’s guidance to practice social distancing and wash their hands, says Dr. Muhib Shinwari, a 25-year-old medical student, now in Kabul as his school in Beijing is closed due to the virus.
He says he’s been trying to “scare” Afghans into taking the virus seriously, posting on social media to reach younger Afghans in Pashto, Dari and English, and talking to anyone who will listen at the mosques after Friday prayers. “I tried to educate them about social distancing, washing your hands,” he said over a Skype call. “It will not see your race or religion,” he tells them.
Governor Rahimi, for his part, is holding on to hope that the Trump Administration will change its mind on withdrawing aid at this critical moment. “This was very bad timing,” he says, saying that Afghans now have to worry about ongoing Taliban attacks and the invisible enemy of the virus. “We are fighting two wars.”
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