KABUL — Afghan Defense Minister Asadullah Khalid says the Taliban should commit to a truce as a means of helping both sides battle the spread of the coronavirus, which he called a “plague” on the war-ravaged country.
Khalid also said in a televised statement on March 19 that government forces were remaining in an “active defense” posture as a recently agreed U.S.-Taliban peace deal remains under pressure amid disagreements over prisoner releases and other issues.
“Our proposal is that to prevent this plague, a cease-fire should come, so that we would be able to prevent it and treat people in every corner of the country,” Khalid said.
Afghan health authorities have confirmed 22 cases of the coronavirus and no deaths, but only a few hundred people have been tested in the country of 35 million people. Neighboring Iran has reported more than 18,000 cases and 1,284 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University research.
Khalid’s remarks come a day after the United States said the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban should begin prisoner releases “as soon as possible,” adding that the global coronavirus pandemic was adding to the urgency.
U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad wrote in a Twitter thread on March 18 that “coronavirus makes prisoner releases urgent; time is of the essence.”
Khalilzad on February 29 signed a deal with Taliban negotiators aimed at ending the nearly 19-year Afghan war.
The accord called for the release by the Afghan government of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners as well as the freeing of 1,000 Afghan government captives ahead of intra-Afghan talks.
The Taliban, which so far has refused to meet directly with the Afghan government, said it was committed to the deal but would not start negotiations with Kabul until its fighters were freed.
Western-backed Kabul was not a party to the deal and initially resisted freeing any prisoners. President Ashraf Ghani then agreed to free 1,500 last week and the rest after peace talks were finalized and Taliban violence had ceased.
But the peace process was again thrown into crisis on March 15 when Kabul said the release of the first Taliban prisoners had been delayed.
Jawed Faisal, a spokesman for the Afghan National Security Adviser’s office, said the government needed more time to review the list of the prisoners.
Taliban fighters have intensified attacks on Afghan security forces since the February 29 peace deal, even though Afghan troops had ceased offensive operations.
Khalid said Afghan forces would now take a more aggressive “active defense” stance.
“Wherever the enemy is planning to target us, we will have the right to defend ourselves,” he said.
A Taliban spokesman said earlier in the week that the insurgents would “cooperate and coordinate” with health organizations working to stop the coronavirus.
Taliban fighters in the past have been accused of targeting health workers in Afghanistan.