TORONTO -- A study by the University of Melbourne in Australia has found that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected global armed conflicts by changing the strategic environments for the groups involved, with the coronavirus escalating violence in several countries.
Precedence of infectious diseases influencing armed conflict in the past is what drove the initial study.
“You saw local riots and protests against Ebola-related measures in Western Africa some years ago, and you saw the Spanish Flu interfering with military logistics at the end of the First World War,” said lead researcher and study author Dr. Tobias Ide in an interview with CTVNews.ca Thursday from Melbourne.
“So there has already been some research to establish that there is a link between pandemics or diseases with conflict dynamics.”
The study, published in “World Development” examines armed conflicts in nine countries within the first six months of 2020 that had reliable data on both the pandemic and on-going conflicts.
Ide chose Afghanistan, Colombia, India, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand and Yemen due to their similar coronavirus metrics over the same study period.
He found that Afghanistan, Colombia, Thailand and Yemen saw a decrease in armed conflict during the study period – but necessarily for humanitarian reasons, while the other five countries, India, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya and the Philippines, all saw an increase in conflicts.
Ide found that the Taliban did not carry out their usual spring offensive in Afghanistan during the study period as the government battled the pandemic – leading to a noted decline in a conflict that has been waged for decades.
“[But] the Taliban did so for a very strategic reason,” Ide said. “They didn’t do it because they wanted to…open the country for international aid and give people time to respond to the damage...they drove around on motorcycles, measured fevers, spread (COVID-19) information, and tried to get community infection rates low and by doing so would try to get more widespread acceptance.”
Ide said the Taliban exploited the pandemic to set themselves up in contrast to the government they painted as “incompetent” in order to extend their influence and garner support for their cause in communities.
The left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) called for a unilateral ceasefire in the early months of the pandemic in Colombia, Ide said – allowing the government to focus troops and manpower on pandemic logistics.
Regardless, Colombia was hit hard by COVID-19 and the ELN operated similarly to the Taliban, according to the study.
“There are credible reports about them (ELN) explicitly targeting youths that had to leave school because the schools were closed,” Ide said. “Or young people who lost their jobs and are now economically struggling, trying to recruit in that situation.”
Ide said that the decline in conflict intensity in the initial stages of the pandemic outbreak may “set the stage for a more intense conflict in the future,” if the rebels succeed in recruiting more to their cause.
In southern Thailand, a quasi-ceasefire between the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) and Thai security forces in the initial outbreak gave hope that a more concrete peaceful solution may be on the horizon after 17 years of insurgent attacks.
But Ide pointed out that the severe travel restrictions enforced by the Thai government in order to curb the spread of COVID-19 severely affected the BRN’s operation, who normally travel extensively to recruit new members – especially in Malaysia.
“There were reports of them not being able obtain food because of the enormous loss of income, due to lockdowns in the local villages [that support them],” Ide said.
Yemen provided an interesting case study due to the international nature of the conflict, Ide said.
There wasn’t much a change in the conflict dynamics March and April, but a decline occurred later on in the study period as Saudi Arabia was heavily affected by the pandemic – which then forced them to reduce some of its support for their forces.
Alternatively, in the Houthi rebel-held areas of Yemen, the humanitarian crisis of the conflict, along with pandemic stressors, led to “grievances” by the public, Ide said.
“They also received less support from Iran, which also suffered heavily from COVID but also from U.S. sanctions,” Ide said. “Basically, both sides’ capabilities to confront each other really declined in May and June.”
India saw a rise in armed conflict during the study period, with violent clashes in the Kashmir region between Kashmiri separatists facing off against the Indian military, as well as conflicts between Pakistan and India.
“So what mostly drove the increase in conflict intensity…were basically due to two factors,” Ide said.
“The first being that there is some evidence that Pakistan sponsors or supports these insurgents in Kashmir, to encourage them to increase their attacks [on Indian forces] because they perceived them to be weak and struggling with the pandemic.”
The second factor, Ide explained, was that while Indian government enacted a “pretty comprehensive lockdown in Kashmir, and sealing it way from international media attention…launched more intense counter-insurgency efforts and…crack[ed] down on any pro-Pakistani sympathy expressions.”
Iraq had an increase in armed conflict, but Ide noted that the overall intensity did not change that much – a “very slight upward trend” in scale that was not linear.
What did increase were attacks by ISIS in April, May, and June.
“The Iraqi government was really in trouble,” he said. “They had enormous economic loss, they had to go head-to-head and use troops and funds to combat the pandemic – the international coalition supporting the government partially withdrew troops or stopped their activities.”
“The Iraqi government was really in a position of weakness.”
Ide said the Islamic State exploited the pandemic and the thin resources at hand to the government to expand territorial control, conquer new areas and to stage more attacks.
The civil war in Libya between the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) forces and the Libyan National Army escalated during the study period, after a ceasefire brokered in January was broken, Ide said.
“As soon as international attention shifted to the pandemic…they really escalated the conflict, tried to make gains while hoping the other side is weakened because of the pandemic, hoping to score an easy military victory” Ide said. “It didn’t happen.”
The UN Security Council noted in a May report that the pandemic was bolstering the 15-month conflict, citing the history of more than 850 broken ceasefire agreements and “a tide of civilian deaths” on top of a worsening outbreak.
The ongoing conflict with India saw a rise in armed conflict in Pakistan during the study period – which were unrelated to the pandemic, but also a rise in Taliban-affiliated groups and anti-government sentiments due to pandemic restrictions, Ide said.
“There were a lot of anti-government grievances,” Ide said. “There were restrictions on religious gatherings, which religious groups did not like, and there were some negative economic impacts which affected the local people.”
Ide said those two factors could have been exploited by the Taliban in a quest to recruit more followers.
Later in the study period, a swath Pakistani government officials were struck with COVID-19, leaving the country with a leadership crisis, which saw an increase of attacks by Taliban groups in May.
The New People’s Army (NPA) -- a sect of guerrilla communist rebels, who have been fighting in the Philippines for more than 50 years -- initially declared support for the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres call for a “global ceasefire” in the early days of the pandemic, which was then echoed by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
It would not last.
“Both parties did not stick to it, and did not extend it after one month in mid-April,” Ide said, noting that afterwards there was an increase in attacks from the government side – as Duterte “generally strengthened the government’s authoritarian grip” on society.
“Basically [they] used that lockdown and lack of international attention to crack down heavily on all sorts of opposition, including the communist rebels.”
Duterte called for a second unilateral ceasefire earlier this month, even as the Armed Forces of the Philippines announced they will not recommend a holiday truce with the rebels.
Ide said that initially his research gave him “a lot of hope” that ceasefires and peace accords could be brokered during a global health crisis – but his research showed otherwise.
“There was initially quite a bit of optimism that these shared common external threats to all of the groups across the board…might act as a force to curb violence and open a window of opportunity to engage in negotiations,” he said. “What I found is that there is very little evidence of that so far.”
There were a few symbolic gestures he found in his study, but overall “they did not prevail,” he said.
“If there was a decline in violence, it was mostly for strategic reasons and not because of any health diplomacy.”