Afghanistan Vs. Polio

The Wall Street Journal recently published a fascinating article on polio vaccinations in Afghanistan. The WHO and the International Committee of the Red Cross have made allies of the Taliban in bringing polio vaccines to Afghan children. Vaccinators in Afghanistan now carry a letter from Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, supporting the vaccination campaign.

I’m not going to summarize the article here – the whole thing is worth reading. But in a nutshell, it’s a messy situation. Asking for this kind of support gives political legitimacy to the Taliban. But it also gets polio vaccines to Afghan children. I think that the WHO is doing the right thing, but it’s ugly.

There were a couple of things that interested me about the article, beyond the obvious. One is the changing attitude of Muslim leaders toward the polio vaccine. First we had Saudi authorities requiring the polio vaccine from haj pilgrims, and now the Taliban is supporting it. This could mean we’re finally seeing the end of Muslim opposition to the polio vaccine. Considering that most of the remaining polio endemic countries have large Muslim populations, this is extremely welcome.

The second thing that caught my attention was the role that the ICRC played in negotiations. UN agencies are banned from communicating with the Taliban, because it sponsors terror. The ICRC is the only international body that maintains regular communications with Taliban command. They act as the intermediary for each new vaccine support letter, and the WSJ article states that the ICRC’s neutrality is “generally respected by the Taliban.” If true, that is a rare gift in a world where aid workers have become targets.