Taliban leverages pandemic to burnish image as violence in Afghanistan surges

Willem Marx and Mushtaq Yusufzai and Ahmed Mengli and Alex Holmes

Decades of war, political chaos, desperate poverty, and now coronavirus.

A perfect storm has gathered over one of the world’s most benighted nations, Afghanistan, where ordinary citizens are facing a fresh form of misery.

Taliban militants have announced they will keep fighting since they say there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in areas under the group’s control, a senior militant in the province of Ghazni has told NBC News.

An exception to the ongoing tensions will be a three-day Eid ceasefire starting Sunday, the Taliban announced in a tweet Saturday. The country's president agreed.

The move came as fighting between the two sides had intensified despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite an uptick in violence, Taliban sources in Ghazni and four other provinces, Helmand, Paktika, Khost and Nangarhar, have told NBC News that there is now what they characterized as an unwritten understanding in place with the Afghan government and international groups like the World Health Organization to work together during the pandemic, particularly when it comes to testing.

The Afghan government would not say if it was cooperating with the Taliban, who have been fighting to topple the U.S.-backed government in Kabul since being unseated themselves after the 9/11 attacks on America. But the country’s Health Ministry confirmed to NBC News that its workers were being allowed to work in militant-controlled territory.

Image: Volunteers in protective suits spray disinfectant on passing vehicles to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in Kabul, Afghanistan (Rahmat Gul / AP)

The World Health Organization representative to Afghanistan, Dr. Richard Peeperkorn, did not confirm that there had been a tacit agreement between the Taliban, the government and the WHO. But he told NBC News that his organization was working with “all parties to the conflict,” including the Taliban.

Propaganda videos and messages released in multiple languages appeared aimed at highlighting the group’s efforts, although the actual impact of the work on the population is unknown.

Taliban health workers in Helmand, Khost, Paktika and Nangarhar provinces spoke to NBC News about their work.

In one video released on a Twitter account controlled by a Taliban spokesperson known as Zabihullah, an official is seen speaking at a podium, flanked by hygiene workers dressed in white personal protective clothing and carrying spraying tanks.

The voiceover in English says the Islamic Emirate — as the Taliban refers to itself — is working to raise “public awareness” about the virus. The speaker’s audience appears to be practicing safe social distancing, sitting in widely spaced chairs, but a subsequent image of vehicles carrying the hygiene workers driving through a village shows onlookers clustered together without masks.

In another propaganda video reported by Radio Free Europe, a U.S. government-funded broadcaster, men living under Taliban control are shown washing their hands. In a clinic controlled by Taliban militants, health care workers in light green personal protective wear hand out rubber gloves and masks, while others test the temperature of a suspected patient with a digital thermometer.

Image: A health worker checks the body temperature of a devotee as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus before the Friday prayers on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan at Wazir Akbar Khan mosque (WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP - Getty Images file)

The Taliban health workers who spoke to NBC News - none of them qualified doctors - said that each area under the group’s control had a commandeered madrassa, or religious school, that had been converted into a quarantine center, and said that the group’s medical leaders - known as the health commission - had ordered large amounts of personal protective equipment.

But in a rare moment of self-criticism, some members of the Taliban said their early response to the pandemic had been lackluster.

“We didn’t know initially about this disease, and didn’t take it seriously,” one senior Taliban health official told NBC News, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media.

There have been 8,676 confirmed cases of the virus in Afghanistan, and 193 deaths, according to Ministry of Health figures published by the WHO, which added that cases were expected to increase.

The United Nations agency responsible for humanitarian affairs, OCHA, reported that by mid-May there were nine testing laboratories operating across the country, but there are none inside Taliban-controlled territory, and it was not clear how much of a difference the militants’ coronavirus efforts were making.

Image: 27-year-old Afghan cyclist Idrees Syawash talks to residents during his awareness campaign against the COVID-19 coronavirus in the Surkh Rod district of Nangarhar province (Noorullah Shirzada / AFP - Getty Images)

A medical student visiting family in the northern province of Kunduz, Said Ekram, 28, told NBC News that ordinary life in Taliban-controlled areas had changed very little despite the coronavirus outbreak.

“People attend to prayers in the mosques and weddings are normally attended,” he said, adding that nobody was wearing masks or gloves in his area, no awareness program had been launched, and only people who have traveled from foreign countries, like hard-hit Iran, are being checked for health problems.

'It’s a mess'

In working to ameliorate the effects of the coronavirus, the Taliban is wading into a health crisis that predates the pandemic by many years.

Afghanistan ranks 168th in the world in infant mortality rate, 176th for maternal mortality and 173rd in life expectancy of all citizens, according to the most recently available World Bank data.

And according to Kate Clark, the co-director of the independent and not-for-profit research group, the Afghan Analysts Network, a lockdown designed to protect health care systems that are “poor to nonexistent” makes little sense in a hand-to-mouth subsistence economy,

“Some districts don’t have doctors,” she said. “It’s confusing. It’s a mess.”

But in Helmand province, residents said Taliban officials oversee hospitals that are nominally government-run, and there were some benefits to this during a health crisis.

“Believe me, the doctors and other health workers are very punctual in their duties where they are managed by the Taliban,” said Abul Khaliq, resident of Helmand’s Marja.

The Taliban have long been known for using intimidation and fear to maintain order in the areas they control, but some residents and local functionaries have also tended to consider their administration more efficient and less corrupt.

Ashley Jackson, a research associate at the Overseas Development Institute who has done extensive work in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan, said she understood, based on conversations with friends in the country’s north, that the Taliban were not actually doing very much on the ground

They have been “savvy and quite creative” in their propaganda about pandemic responses — far more so than the Afghan government, she added.

But like others who spoke to NBC News, Jackson said the most useful weapon the Taliban could offer to combat the outbreak would be an end to fighting.

Mushtaq Yusufzai reported from Peshawar, Ahmed Mengli from Kabul, and Willem Marx and Alex Holmes from London.