The first four confirmed cases of coronavirus among coalition troops in Afghanistan were reported Tuesday as the commander of U.S. and coalition forces issued an urgent plea to the Afghan people to stop fighting each other and turn to combating the spread of the disease.
"All sides need to reduce violence so we can stay focused on preventing the spread of this virus," Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller said in Twitter posts and in a teleconference with Afghan security officials.
Containment of coronavirus by a rudimentary and underfunded Afghan health care system already lacking in the basics "would be difficult even under normal circumstances but almost impossible if we have violence," he said.
Miller's command, NATO Resolute Support mission headquarters in Kabul, announced Tuesday that four of the 1,500 U.S. and coalition troops recently arrived in Afghanistan had tested positive for coronavirus. The nationalities of the four troops were not immediately released.
They are the first coronavirus cases among the estimated 12,000 U.S. and 16,000 troops from coalition nations in Afghanistan, Resolute Support officials said. Another 38 personnel who have flu-like symptoms have also been placed in isolation and are receiving medical care, according to the announcement.
In a precautionary move, all 1,500 have been held in what Resolute Support described as "screening facilities" for at least 14 days to make sure they do not carry the virus.
The four who tested positive were moved into isolation and "we have taken the necessary precautions to identify and quarantine any personnel these four service members may have been in contact with," the statement said.
The coalition lacks labs in Afghanistan to analyze tests. As a result, tests must be flown to Landstuhl, Germany, for analysis, Resolute Support said last week.
In his teleconference with Afghan National Defense and Security Forces officials, Miller sought to assure them of continuing U.S. "commitment and support" despite the political turmoil in Kabul, the spread of coronavirus, and the drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces.
Miller spoke a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried and failed to broker an agreement between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah, who both claim to have been the winner of presidential elections last September.
On his one-day visit, Pompeo then announced that the U.S. would be withholding $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan this year, and possibly another $1 billion next year, in an effort to press the Kabul government to reach a peace deal with the Taliban.
Pompeo later flew to Doha, Qatar, where he met with Taliban representatives and said they were adhering to calls for a reduction of violence. But Miller gave a different estimate.
"If the Taliban escalate violence -- and they have -- they know they'll get a response," Miller said. "For our part, the Taliban explicitly know and agree that we have the right to defend not only ourselves, but our Afghan security force partners. And so if they attack, there will be a response."
He again stressed the urgency in turning to combat the virus. Afghanistan is among the world's least prepared nations for the fight, according to the World Health Organization.
In 2017, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported that the U.S. Agency for International Development had spent $1.5 billion since 2002 on improving Afghanistan's health care system, with little to show for it.
The Afghan government "lacks funds to operate and sustain its health care facilities; hospitals are unable to provide adequate care; health care facilities lack qualified staff; and corruption throughout the system remains a concern," the SIGAR report said.
On Tuesday, Afghanistan's Health Ministry said that 32 new confirmed cases of coronavirus had been detected, bringing the known total to 74 in the country, Afghanistan's Tolo News agency reported.
However, Afghanistan's Minister of Public Health Ferozuddin Feroz said at a news conference that the spread of the disease is widely underreported.
"According to WHO (World Health Organization) predictions, there is the possibility of 16 million people becoming infected with the virus," or about half the country's population, Feroz said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.