KABUL, Afghanistan – In the final battle against one of humanity’s oldest and most-feared maladies, an unlikely ally has emerged: the Taliban.
The insurgent group, whose anti-government attacks have stoked insecurity in Afghanistan and hampered vaccinators, is working alongside local and international health authorities to wipe out the last vestiges of polio, marshaling thousands of people to immunize vulnerable children.
In the country’s Taliban-controlled areas, the group’s cooperation is crucial. Cases worldwide of poliomyelitis, as the disease is known, have dropped this year to the lowest in history. The crippling disease may be eradicated entirely by the end of next year if children can be protected where they were previously deemed too risky or difficult to reach. Villagers in some of the most remote areas are now “very willing” to be freed from the ancient scourge, said Obaidullah Elaj, a doctor working for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
“It’s a dreaded disease and requires collaboration from all parties to fight,” said Elaj, who acts as an intermediary between the group’s negotiators and World Health Organization officials. “I am 100 percent happy to work alongside WHO and the government to fight polio, a disease affecting children in our isolated areas.”
After 26 years and an investment of more than $11 billion, polio cases worldwide were reduced to 359 in 2014, from an estimated 350,000 in 1988. Apart from 17 wild poliovirus cases in Afghanistan, only 49 others have been reported this year — all of them in neighboring Pakistan. That leaves only two countries where polio transmission has never been stopped.
After the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 by U.S. forces with the cooperation of a doctor in Pakistan, polio workers and doctors were seen as spies by the Taliban and became targets with more than 100 of them killed or wounded in Afghanistan, said Hedayatullah Stanekzai, a senior adviser with the country’s health ministry. Since 2012, 32 health care workers and other personnel involved in polio eradication have been killed in Pakistan, the WHO said this month.
That suspicion no longer exists in Afghanistan, said Elaj, the Taliban doctor.
The Taliban in Afghanistan released a statement in 2013 supporting all health programs in the country, including polio eradication. The cooperation is part of an effort to build trust among the general population, researchers said in a 2013 study.
“We are not worried about the possibility of spies being among vaccinators because these are trusted people, introduced and hired on our recommendation,” Elaj said from Kandahar.
The “quality” of the Taliban’s polio campaign can’t be verified because there is no way to check that every vulnerable child is being vaccinated, the health ministry’s Stanekzai said. That’s because the Taliban’s participation in the program, negotiated with public health officials and the International Committee of the Red Cross, comes with a condition: that their own people do the vaccinating in Taliban-controlled areas, said Mohammed Soghaier, a WHO doctor in his office in Kandahar.
“Some areas are inaccessible except for Taliban, so we are requesting them to provide their own people or offer local people from these faraway areas to work with us,” Soghaier said. “Not one of these groups is against polio vaccination. They are cooperatives, they trust us.”
The Taliban and other illegal armed groups in Afghanistan still threaten locals, foreigners and security forces operating in the country, the U.N. Security Council said. Still, polio won’t be eradicated without the Taliban’s help. There are about 500,000 children younger than 5 in Afghanistan who aren’t fully immunized against the virus, a quarter of whom live in areas deemed inaccessible to vaccinators, the WHO said. Decades of war, insurgencies and border skirmishes, combined with one of the weakest health systems in the world, have allowed the virus to persist. “There is no clinic or hospital in the Taliban-controlled areas,” Elaj said.
While Taliban groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan share the same name, operationally they have different goals and structures. The Afghan Taliban took power in the 1990s and received diplomatic backing from only two countries, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, before the U.S. invasion in 2001. Top members received shelter in Pakistan for years, and the U.S. State Department now sees the group as being an “important partner” in a peaceful Afghan-led reconciliation process.
The Pakistani Taliban, on the other hand, is a collection of militant groups along the Afghan border that united in 2007 under the name Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. The U.S. considers the group to be a terrorist organization.