U.S. threat­ens to cut aid as Afghan talks teeter

Kabul gov­ern­ment risks los­ing $2 bil­lion un­less it ne­go­ti­ates with the Tal­iban.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By David S. Cloud

WASH­ING­TON — Fac­ing col­lapse of Afghan peace talks be­fore they even start, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has threat­ened to with­hold up to $2 bil­lion in aid un­less Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani and his main ri­val put aside their po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences and open ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Tal­iban.

Re­buk­ing the Afghan of­fi­cials as “ir­re­spon­si­ble” and dis­hon­or­able, Sec­re­tary of State Michael R. Pom­peo pub­licly warned that U.S. aid to the cen­tral gov­ern­ment could be slashed af­ter his emer­gency visit to Kabul on Mon­day failed to re­solve the dis­pute between Ghani and his for­mer coali­tion part­ner, Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah.

“Be­cause this lead­er­ship fail­ure poses a di­rect threat to U.S. na­tional in­ter­ests, ef­fec­tive im­me­di­ately, the U.S. gov­ern­ment will ini­ti­ate a re­view of the scope of our co­op­er­a­tion with Afghanista­n,” Pom­peo said.

The threat was the sharpest sign yet that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is dis­tanc­ing it­self from its Afghan ally and mov­ing closer to the Tal­iban. The long­time U.S. ad­ver­sary has in ef­fect be­come a wary part­ner as Pres­i­dent Trump seeks to with­draw thou­sands of Amer­i­can troops be­fore the Novem­ber elec­tion and end Amer­ica’s long­est war.

U.S. and Tal­iban forces have largely halted at­tacks on each other, a key com­mit­ment in an agree­ment that the two sides signed last month in Qatar. Nor has the mil­i­tant group con­ducted large scale sui­cide bomb­ings in Kabul and other ur­ban cen­ters, meet­ing an­other U.S. de­mand.

In re­turn, the Pen­tagon has started with­draw­ing the first of its 12,000 troops, aim­ing to be down to 8,600 by mid­sum­mer and to be out en­tirely in 14 months, a cen­tral Tal­iban de­mand.

The shaky U.S.-Tal­iban peace has taken hold even though Tal­iban fight­ers have stepped up at­tacks on Afghan troops, caus­ing hun­dreds of ca­su­al­ties at gov­ern­ment check­points and re­mote bases around the coun­try.

On Tues­day, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top U.S. com­man­der in Afghanista­n, said that the U.S. has told Tal­iban lead­ers that the group’s at­tacks are threat­en­ing the peace process, and that the U.S. re­served the right to strike back in re­sponse to the Tal­iban of­fen­sive.

“I do want to talk about vi­o­lence. We all know that it’s too high,” Miller said in tele­vised re­marks dur­ing a meet­ing in Kabul with Afghan com­man­ders.

“We’ve told the Tal­iban that it’s too high as well, and we tell them that on a daily ba­sis.”

At least 27 Afghan sol­diers were killed in a sin­gle at­tack last week when Tal­iban fight­ers stormed a mil­i­tary post in the south­ern prov­ince of Zabol.

It was one of the big­gest at­tacks since the agree­ment was signed in Qatar on Feb. 29 in an ef­fort to re­duce vi­o­lence and set the stage for in­ter-Afghan talks.

The Tal­iban did not com­mit to halt­ing at­tacks on Afghan troops, but it agreed to work to­ward a cease-fire if talks with Kabul be­gin. The doc­u­ment in­cludes se­cret pro­vi­sions con­cern­ing the lev­els and types of at­tacks that would prompt U.S. reprisals.

Andrew Watkins, a Kabul-based an­a­lyst with the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group, said am­bigu­ous lan­guage in the doc­u­ment leaves the U.S. “wig­gle room” to de­cide when and if to re­spond.

The only known U.S. re­sponse so far was a March 4 airstrike against Tal­iban fight­ers who were as­sault­ing an Afghan gov­ern­ment check­point — and an ad­mon­ish­ment by a U.S. mil­i­tary spokesman in Kabul that the Tal­iban should “stop need­less at­tacks.”

In­stead of daily airstrikes and U.S. spe­cial forces raids to assist Afghan troops bat­tling the Tal­iban, the Pen­tagon’s chief tac­tic un­til re­cently, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has fo­cused on per­suad­ing Ghani to reach a deal with the Tal­iban.

Even as he threat­ened to cut crit­i­cal aid to Kabul, Pom­peo in­sisted that the U.S. “is not aban­don­ing our part­ner­ship with Afghanista­n.”

But Paul D. Miller, a Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil of­fi­cial re­spon­si­ble for Afghanista­n un­der Pres­i­dents Ge­orge W. Bush and Obama, likened the sit­u­a­tion to the point in the Viet­nam War when the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion ne­go­ti­ated a deal with Hanoi and forced the U.S. ally in Saigon to ac­cept it. Two years later, Hanoi’s forces cap­tured Saigon.

“The fragmentat­ion of the Afghan state be­comes a real pos­si­bil­ity, as does civil war, a mil­i­tary coup, or a Tal­iban vic­tory,” Miller said in an in­ter­view. “None of those out­comes are con­sis­tent with U.S. in­ter­ests.”

Many Afghan of­fi­cials see the nascent peace process as a trap to force them into ne­go­ti­a­tions that, at best, will lead to a U.S. troop pull­out and a power-shar­ing agree­ment with the Tal­iban, who ruled with a bru­tal form of Is­lamic law in the 1990s.

At worst, they fear, the coun­try will plunge back into bloody civil war.

Ghani has balked so far at a planned pris­oner ex­change of up to 5,000 Tal­iban pris­on­ers — a con­fi­dence­build­ing mea­sure in­cluded in the peace plan. That has de­layed in­def­i­nitely the planned start of peace talks in Oslo between Kabul of­fi­cials and Tal­iban lead­ers.

Ghani also has not fi­nal­ized a ne­go­ti­at­ing team that is sup­posed to in­clude all po­lit­i­cal fac­tions as well as women, mi­nori­ties and hu­man rights ac­tivists.

Ab­dul­lah and Ghani have jock­eyed for ad­van­tage, nei­ther one willing to risk los­ing sup­port by em­bark­ing on risky talks with the Tal­iban. The two for­mer coali­tion part­ners an­nounced com­pet­ing govern­ments last month af­ter both claimed to have won Afghanista­n’s dis­puted pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

“The fear is that un­less this cri­sis gets re­solved and re­solved soon, that could af­fect the peace process,” a se­nior State Depart­ment of­fi­cial told re­porters trav­el­ing with Pom­peo. “And our agree­ment with the [Tal­iban] could be put at risk.”

The U.S. does have lever­age over Ghani.

The Kabul gov­ern­ment is heav­ily de­pen­dent on in­ter­na­tional as­sis­tance. U.S. aid was ex­pected to to­tal $4.3 bil­lion this year.

Afghan Pres­i­den­tial Palace

SEC­RE­TARY of State Michael R. Pom­peo, left, and Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani meet in Kabul.

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