US to cut $1bn of aid to Afghanistan as progess on peace deal falters
A tentative Afghan peace deal hung in the balance yesterday after the US said it would slash aid to the country because of a feud between the president and his main rival that is blocking talks with the Taliban.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said $1bn (£850m) would be withheld after his surprise visit to Kabul on Monday failed to persuade President Ashraf Ghani and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, to agree on a unity government that would negotiate with the Taliban.
A further $1bn could be cut from the annual aid package of $4.5bn in 2021, Pompeo said, adding that the aid could be restored if they changed their minds.
The aid cut would represent about 5% of Afghanistan’s entire GDP, but Ghani claimed in a televised address yesterday that “the US reduction in aid will have no direct impact on our key sectors”.
Pompeo expressed hope that the Afghan government could try to satisfy the US “through talks and negotiations”.
The Afghan president also blamed Abdullah, who he said had been offered an important role in the cabinet, but had instead demanded changes to the constitution.
Following Pompeo’s visit, Abdullah also released a statement saying that while the secretary of state’s trip had created an opportunity to resolve the crisis, “unfortunately it was not utilised properly”.
“The United States is disappointed in them and what their conduct means for Afghanistan and our shared interests,” Pompeo said in a sharply written statement. “Their failure has harmed US-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonours those Afghans, Americans, and coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country.”
Abdullah, who held the title of Afghanistan’s former chief executive officer, refused to accept defeat in last September’s presidential election, amid widespread allegations of fraud. He is seeking to set up a parallel administration in a palace next door to Ghani’s presidential compound.
Pompeo added: “Because this leadership failure poses a direct threat to US national interests, effective immediately the US government will initiate a review of the scope of our cooperation with Afghanistan. Among other steps, we are today announcing a responsible adjustment to our spending in Afghanistan and immediately reducing assistance by $1bn this year. We are prepared to reduce by another $1bn in 2021.”
The secretary of state warned that an array of other US projects, as well as US pledges at donor conferences, would come under review.
Pompeo blamed the Afghan leaders for failing to abide by a joint declaration with the US, made on 29 February, to send a unified team to talks with the Taliban, and to free Taliban prisoners.
In a separate agreement on 29 February with the Taliban, the US said 5,000 Taliban prisoners would be released in exchange for 1,000 Afghan government soldiers held by the insurgents.
But the Afghan government insisted it had not agreed to free that many prisoners at once before broader peace negotiations had got under way.
Pompeo told reporters that the first cut in assistance could still be averted if Ghani and Abdullah changed course, formed an “inclusive team” and went ahead with the prisoner exchange. “We’re hopeful, frankly, they’ll get their act together and we won’t have to do it, but we are prepared to do that if they can’t,” he said.
After spending more than eight hours in Kabul in unsuccessful talks with Ghani and Abdullah, Pompeo flew to Doha, where he held hour-long talks late on Monday night with the top Taliban negotiator, Mullah Baradar, at a Qatari air base.
Pompeo said that in contrast to the Afghan government, the Taliban were keeping their end of the agreement made on 29 February.
“They committed to reducing violence; they have largely done that, and then they are working towards delivering their team to the ultimate negotiations,” he said.
‘Their failure sadly dishonours those Afghans, Americans and coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives’
Mike Pompeo US secretary of state
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