The US said it will cut assistance to Afghanistan by $1 billion this year and threatened more cuts could come as a breakdown in talks over forming a unity government threatened to derail a US-engineered peace deal.
Hours after departing Kabul on March 23, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo issued a statement saying the US “deeply regrets” the failure of President Ashraf Ghani and former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah to form a unity government. He said the US is imposing the $1 billion cut in assistance because of the breakdown, which dates from disputed national elections late last year.
“Their failure has harmed US-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonours those Afghan, Americans and Coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country,” Pompeo said. He added the administration could cut aid by another $1 billion in 2021. The US has earmarked $4.35 billion in funding for 2020, according to the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released on January 30.
The inability of Afghan leaders to broker an agreement imperils a peace deal reached between the US and the Taliban last month to bring an end to what has become America’s longest war. The deal was expected to lead to talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban starting around March 10, a deadline that has already passed.
In a televised address to the nation, President Ashraf Ghani said the government would ensure the US action won’t affect key sectors. “The US has not yet cut the aid, but they made it conditional and we will make efforts to convince them through dialog and negotiations” to not withdraw that support, Ghani said.
Even with Ghani and Abdullah both claiming victory in last year’s election, the peace deal called for a team of Afghan representatives that was expected to include more than just government officials. That opened the door to Ghani and Abdullah being represented in talks with the Taliban, the militant group ousted by the US after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. But the politics of achieving that have, so far, proved elusive.
“They still can’t see their way towards putting together the team, an inclusive team,” Pompeo told reporters on this plane en route back to the US. “That’s why you see in our statement that we are disappointed that they’ve not been able to do that.”
The impasse between Ghani and Abdullah is a repeat of the previous presidential election in 2014 between the same candidates, when there also were disputes over vote-counting and fraud. Then, Secretary of State John Kerry intervened and brokered a last-minute deal that gave Ghani the presidency but created the chief executive’s position for Abdullah. Pompeo couldn’t get the two politicians to agree to a similar compromise.
Pompeo said he believed progress has been made in other ways since the Taliban deal was struck, citing a lack of attacks on US forces over the past three weeks. And he suggested the US could revisit its decision to cut aid.
“We are hopeful, frankly, that they will get their act together and we won’t have to do it,” Pompeo said on the plane. “But we’re prepared to do that.”
Despite almost two decades of war and $900 billion in spending by the US, the Taliban are at their strongest since being ousted by American forces. Taliban forces control or contest about half the country, while opium production has been near record levels over the past year.
The cut in aid may leave some Afghan military units unable to function, said Belqis Roshan, an independent member of parliament from the western province of Farah bordering Iran.
“Most of the US financial aid is allocated for Afghan forces, for their salaries and for purchasing or updating Afghan military equipment,” Roshan said. “The $1 billion cut in aid means a substantial financial cut for our security sector. The U.S. action will weaken our security sector by the time our forces are still fighting a resurgent Taliban, which poses a threat to anyone in Afghanistan.”
One key area of disagreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban has been in the release of prisoners. The peace deal in Qatar called for about 5,000 Taliban prisoners to be released, but those efforts have stalled amid the Ghani-Abdullah power struggle.
In a snub to the Afghan leaders, Pompeo said Taliban officials — whom he also met with on Monday in Qatar — were living up to their commitments.
“They committed to reducing violence and they’ve largely done that,” Pompeo said. “And they are working towards delivering their team to the ultimate negotiations.”