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US watchdog warns of pending coronavirus disaster in Afghanistan

In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, a medical worker writes their colleague's name on a protective suit to aid in identification as they work at Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University in Wuhan in central China's Hubei Province, Firday, Jan. 24, 2020. (Xiong Qi/Xinhua via AP/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A watchdog report to the U.S. Congress has warned that Afghanistan is likely to face a health disaster in the coming months brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

The April 30 report by the U.S. Special Inspector-General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has heightened concerns that the pandemic could derail stalled peace efforts brokered by the United States.

The spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has significantly impacted Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan’s numerous and, in some cases, unique vulnerabilities — a weak health-care system, widespread malnutrition, porous borders, massive internal displacement, contiguity with Iran, and ongoing conflict — make it likely the country will confront a health disaster in the coming months,” the report concludes.

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The pandemic has forced the closure of border crossings, disrupting commercial and humanitarian deliveries.

SIGAR, which monitors billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan by the United States, warns that rising food prices are likely to worsen as the crisis continues.

Afghanistan has confirmed nearly 2,200 coronavirus cases and 64 deaths, according to local news reports quoting the Afghan Health Ministry.

Taliban militants fighting U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan signed a deal with Washington in February — raising hopes that formal peace talks between the militants and Afghanistan’s central government could start soon.

The Taliban committed to severing ties with terrorists and preventing terrorists from using territory under its control to launch attacks against the United States or its allies, including the Afghan government.

In exchange for those guarantees, the United States agreed to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan by July 2021.

Since signing the deal, Taliban militants have escalated attacks on Afghan security forces.

Last week, the Taliban rejected a proposal by the Afghan government for a cease-fire during the holy month of Ramadan.

The latest SIGAR report said the international coalition has declined to make data available for public release about the number of Taliban attacks launched during the first three months of 2020.

It was the first time publication of the data has been held back since 2018 when SIGAR began using the information to track levels and locations of violence, the report said.

SIGAR said the coalition justified holding back the information because it is now part of internal U.S. government deliberations on negotiations with the Taliban.

Peace talks are supposed to begin after the Afghan government releases some 5,000 Taliban prisoners from custody.

In return, the Taliban also is supposed to release about 1,000 Afghan troops and civilian government employees it is holding.

As of April 27, the Afghan government had freed nearly 500 Taliban prisoners, while the militant group had released about 60 of its captives.