US Urges Afghans to Set Disputes Aside to Combat Virus


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ISLAMABAD - The United States has again demanded that Afghanistan's feuding leaders and the Taliban insurgency set internal disputes aside and cease armed violence to focus on combating the coronavirus pandemic.

American peace envoy to the country, Zalmay Khalilzad, made the call Sunday through a series of tweets to wish Afghans a happy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

"The well-being of the Afghan people and the country itself depend on all parties devoting their full energies to the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the shared enemy of all," Khalilzad emphasized.

At least 50 people have died out of 1,500 people who contracted the coronavirus in Afghanistan and the number of infections continues to spread in a country where decades of war has left an already underdeveloped public health system in shambles.

Khalilzad said that Ramadan, which began on Friday, offered Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival, Abdullah Abdullah "the opportunity to put the interest of the country ahead of their own."

Both the rival leaders claim to have won the September 28 presidential election and held competing inauguration ceremonies last month. The political crisis paralyzed national governance just when a U.S. negotiated peace-building agreement with the Taliban had raised hopes for finding a negotiated end to years of hostilities in Afghanistan.

"Similarly, Ramadan offers the Taliban an opportunity to embrace a humanitarian ceasefire to reduce violence and suspend offensive military operations until the health crisis is over," Khalilzad stressed.

But the Islamist insurgent group in a statement Sunday again rejected domestic and international calls for reducing violence or declaring a ceasefire during Ramadan.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid insisted the implementation of its February 29th U.S. troop withdrawal agreement with Washington was the "sole path" toward ending their nearly 19-year-old war and establishing peace in Afghanistan.

Mujahid noted the deal signed in February had required both sides to release thousands of prisoners within ten days of the signing ceremony to lay the ground for Afghan warring sides to negotiate a political settlement to the conflict.

"Intra-Afghan negotiations itself would have laid the groundwork for peace, security and end of hostilities and perhaps we would have made major progress on it till now," Mujahid said. The dialogue was supposed to open on March 10.

The Taliban spokesman, however, accused the U.S.-backed Afghan government, which was not part of the pact, of creating hurdles in the way of implementation of the deal from the outset and using delaying tactics on the prisoner swap issue.

He went on to also accuse American and NATO troops of violating the agreement, saying the alliance continues to provide weapons and ammunition to the Afghan government to fuel the conflict.

"Demanding a ceasefire and reduction in violence at a time when the opposite side is not executing its own obligations is both illogical and opportunistic," Mujahid said.

The U.S. military denies insurgent charges of deal violations and maintains the agreement binds it to support Afghan forces if attacked.

U.S. military spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett tweeted Sunday it "is committed to our support for ANDSF [Afghan National Defense Security Force] and we continue to work together despite COVID-19."

The U.S.-Taliban agreement called for the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, and 1,000 Afghan government personnel held by the insurgent group by March 10, when the two rivals were supposed to open direct peace talks.

But the Ghani government has to date rebased 550 insurgent inmates as part its own plan, subject to a reduction in Taliban violence and the opening of peace talks. The Taliban has responded by freeing 60 Afghan security forces, though Kabul says most of the released men were non-combatants.

In his Sunday statement, Khalilzad also urged both sides to accelerate the release of prisoners. "The war on COVID-19 makes it urgent and will also aid the peace process including getting intra-Afghan negotiations underway," he noted.

While the Taliban insists it is living up to its side of the agreement, the insurgents have in recent days carried out major attacks against Afghan security forces, killing more than 100 of them just in the past week.

Afghan officials have also accused the Taliban of killing or injuring up to 800 civilians during this period, charges Taliban officials have denied.