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As the longest war grinds on, Afghanistan now faces pandemic enemy

The scourge of COVID-19 is even more severe in less-developed nations -- and the presence of military conflict makes it worse still. Afghanistan is among the countries facing this heightened threat, as thousands of cases of the virus collide with a politically fragile moment. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The scourge of COVID-19 is even more severe in underdeveloped nations. Add in an active war zone, as in Afghanistan, and fighting the virus is even harder.

    There are now thousands of cases there, including more than a dozen within the presidential palace alone.

    As special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports, fighting a war and the virus comes at a stark moment.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Combating the coronavirus is a sharp turn for the Taliban, which has been fighting an armed insurgency against American and Afghan forces for nearly 20 years.

    Yet, in Afghanistan, the Taliban want to be seen battling COVID-19 too. Public awareness events like this one have taken place in recent weeks in areas they control, the group keen to showcase some form of medical preparedness.

    "We have ambulances and ordered our medical teams to reach each and every house quickly and bring any suspected coronavirus patient to a place for quarantine," this Taliban health official in rural Wardak Province.

    Afghan journalist and filmmaker Naseer Rahim traveled to the Taliban-controlled Tangi Valley, about 60 miles south of the capital, Kabul, for the "NewsHour" to discover if the group is capable of stemming the virus across rural Afghanistan.

    Much of these efforts are largely public relations, staged for the cameras. Social distancing remains a foreign concept. Officials meet in small rooms together, and mosques are open to large congregations.

    Yet, for a group that so often shows disregard to civilian lives in its bombing campaigns, there is a sense of growing concern. Medical facilities in rural Afghanistan are, at best, basic, and if the virus rages through here, it could kill many.

    The Taliban, long hostile to foreign aid groups, say it has changed tack.

  • Qari Haqyar Madani (through translator):

    Our health commission has said any NGOs that want help from us, we will facilitate that, and they should reach out to us. We are trying to coordinate with international NGOs to bring assistance.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The greatest fear here is people coming home from neighboring Iran, where a massive outbreak of coronavirus has gripped the country.

    More than three million Afghans live and work there. And in March alone, 150,000 poured across the border, coming home, many of them to cities like Herat, close to the border, and then on to rural provinces, bringing the disease with them.

    The Taliban says it is forcing returnees to quarantine. The truth is, testing for the virus out here in Taliban territory is practically nonexistent. They do not seem to understand how contagious the virus is. Some fighters are taking precautions, others not.

    If people get sick, they have little option but to travel outside of Taliban territory to cities controlled instead by the Afghan government, hoping for treatment. But those places are also woefully unprepared.

  • Wahidullah Mayar:

    In Herat, we have around 20 ventilators in total, around 20 ventilators. And once we purchase more ventilators, we will provide them more. And in Kabul, we have around this number.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    Afghanistan's Health Ministry spokesman gives a daily press conference on the situation in the capital, Kabul, where the lockdown has tightened in recent days.

    In a city where most people make a living from day labor, socially isolating means desperate times for millions. Despite some food handouts by the government, food prices have increased sharply, as borders shut and supply routes are disrupted by efforts to keep the virus out.

    People are going hungry, yet authorities have little choice but to try to prevent the spread.

  • Wahidullah Mayar:

    We have to start from somewhere. It's better than nothing. And, day by day, we intensify our efforts.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    The U.S. military has halted troop movement in and out of the country, hoping to prevent moving the virus around with it.

    The commander of the U.S. and NATO mission here, General Austin Miller, says the disease can only be controlled if there is peace.

  • General Austin Miller:

    It's something that affects the entire world, and it will affect coalition forces and Afghan security forces as well.

    The focus on this particular virus has to be on preventing the spread, which is difficult under even normal circumstances, but almost impossible if we have violence.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    President Ashraf Ghani's election win last September was contested by his rival, leading to infighting and uncertainty. Now rolling out Washington's deal with the Taliban for a U.S. withdrawal has been delayed too.

    The Kabul government was excluded from the talks between the U.S. and the Taliban and still needs to strike its own peace deal with the group. Yet Ghani's government took months to form a negotiating team and begin the release of Taliban prisoners, something the group demanded before talks could begin.

    In March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lost patience and slashed $1 billion in aid to the Afghan government.

    Laurel Miller is a former U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  • Laurel Miller:

    It will have to come, at least in large part, if not entirely, from the funding of the Afghan Security Forces, because, currently, the U.S. gives a little over $500 million a year in civilian assistance to Afghanistan.

    And, in the current year, over $4 billion was allocated to support for those security forces. So there is no way to cut a billion dollars without cutting into the support for the security forces.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    With the White House losing patience and punishing the Kabul government with massive funding cuts, the Ghani administration is losing its ability to negotiate a strong settlement.

  • Laurel Miller:

    In the past the U.S. was, I wouldn't just say unwilling, I would say unable to make those kinds of threats, because — certainly not able to make those kinds of threats credibly, because the U.S. had a strategy in place that depended on the success and survival of the Afghan government.

    The fact that the U.S. is now willing to make those kinds of threats, I think credibly, suggests that the U.S. is turning towards a strategy that doesn't see the success and survival of the Afghan government as important to American security interests.

  • Jane Ferguson:

    No matter how soon American troops will head home, it won't be before the country is forced to face a public health crisis for which it is not equipped.

    The virus is being called a great leveler, encircling nations and people of all incomes and ethnicities, but, in reality, some countries, like Afghanistan, are that much more vulnerable than others.

    Now, as well as surviving fighting and near daily suicide attacks, its citizens are left to fight alone against an invisible, frightening enemy.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jane Ferguson.

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