US to cut $1bn of aid to Afghanista­n as pro­gess on peace deal fal­ters

The Guardian - - WORLD - Ju­lian Borger

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

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ALEXEI DRUZHININ/SPUT­NIK/KREM­LIN POOL/EPA

Vladimir Putin donned a yel­low pro­tec­tive suit yes­ter­day to visit a hospi­tal in Moscow for pa­tients with sus­pected Covid-19

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