The announcement comes just weeks after the Afghan government launched a new campaign to immunise more than eight million children between six months and five years old throughout the country. It said it had trained 46,000 volunteers to conduct the campaign which is funded by the American aid agency USAID, the World Health Organisation and Unicef.
Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the three remaining countries in the world where polio remains a serious threat, but efforts to eradicate the disease have been sabotaged by the Taliban and other Islamic militants who have assassinated immunisation volunteers in all three countries.
Eleven polio workers were killed in Pakistan last year, including five women who were shot dead in Karachi in December last year. Earlier this year a police officer protecting vaccination campaigners was shot by motorcycle gunmen in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa. In Afghanistan, a 16 year old girl involved in an anti-polio vaccination campaign in Kapisa province was shot six times in the stomach outside her home last December and died later in hospital.
In March this year the Afghan government was forced to abandon its polio vaccination campaign in Nuristan province where, it said, Taliban opposition had made it impossible.
Opposition to the vaccination programme has been driven by conservative clerics who claim it is a plot to sterilise Muslim children, and Taliban commanders who fear it is being used to gather intelligence in their strongholds. Those fears increased following the 2011 killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad where Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi was arrested for running a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign to help the CIA collect DNA samples of members of the bin Laden family.
But in a sudden U-turn the Taliban leadership issued a statement offering its support for polio eradication campaigns as long as foreigners were not involved and that all volunteers respected local Islamic culture.
“According to the latest international medicine science, the polio disease can only be cured by preventive measures ie the anti-polio drops and the vaccination of children against this disease.
“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan supports and lends a hand to all those programs which works for the health care of the helpless people of our country,” said a stament issued by the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’.
But it warned the World Health Organisation and Unicef to employ only “unbiased people” in a campaign “harmonised with the regional conditions, Islamic values and local cultural traditions.”
It also ordered its fighters to give polio workers “all necessary support”.
Mohammad Younas Fakor, an independent political analyst, said the move was aimed at boosting its popularity among Afghans as the withdrawal of foreign troops draws closer.
“I think the Taliban looks towards 2014, and they know that they will not have any other option rather than coming to the political process,” he said.
Meanwhile, 13 civilians were killed in a bomb attack on mourners on their way to the funeral of two other victims of terrorism in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan today.