US slashes aid to Afghanista­n after Pom­peo visit to Kabul

The Kansas City Star - - News - BY MATTHEW LEE

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is slash­ing $1 bil­lion in as­sis­tance to Afghanista­n and threat­en­ing further re­duc­tions in all forms of co­op­er­a­tion after the coun­try’s ri­val lead­ers failed to agree on form­ing a new gov­ern­ment.

The de­ci­sion to cut the aid was made on Mon­day by Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo after he made an unan­nounced, ur­gent visit to Kabul to meet with Ashraf Ghani and Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah, the ri­val Afghan politi­cians who have each de­clared them­selves pres­i­dent of the coun­try after dis­puted elec­tions last year. Pom­peo had hoped to break the dead­lock but was un­able to.

In an un­usu­ally harsh state­ment, Pom­peo slammed the two men for be­ing un­able to work to­gether and threat­en­ing a po­ten­tial peace deal that could end Amer­ica’s long­est-run­ning con­flict. The U.S. has been the prime backer of the Afghan gov­ern­ment since it in­vaded the coun­try in 2001 and over­threw the Tal­iban after the 9/11 at­tacks.

“The United States deeply re­grets that Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah have in­formed Sec­re­tary Pom­peo that they have been un­able to agree on an in­clu­sive gov­ern­ment that can meet the chal­lenges of gov­er­nance, peace, and se­cu­rity, and pro­vide for the health and wel­fare of Afghan cit­i­zens,” he said.

Pom­peo said the U.S. was “dis­ap­pointed” in both men and their con­duct, which he said had “harmed U.S.-Afghan re­la­tions and, sadly, dis­hon­ors 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 their in­abil­ity to work to­gether posed a “di­rect threat” to U.S. na­tional in­ter­ests and that the ad­min­is­tra­tion would be­gin an im­me­di­ate re­view of all its support pro­grams for Afghanista­n, start­ing with a re­duc­tion of $1 bil­lion in aid this year. He said it could be re­duced by another bil­lion dol­lars in 2021.

“We have made clear to the lead­er­ship that we will not back se­cu­rity op­er­a­tions that are po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated, nor support po­lit­i­cal lead­ers who or­der such op­er­a­tions or those who ad­vo­cate for or support par­al­lel gov­ern­ment,” Pom­peo said.

Speak­ing to re­porters aboard his plane on the re­turn flight home, Pom­peo said he was hope­ful Ghani and Ab­dul­lah “will get their act to­gether and we won’t have to” cut the as­sis­tance. “But we’re pre­pared to do that,” he said. He de­fended his writ­ten state­ment from in­ter­pre­ta­tions that it is overly harsh say­ing it “is nei­ther hope­ful nor threat­en­ing. It is fac­tual. Th­ese are the expectatio­ns that we have.”

Pom­peo, who after leav­ing Kabul met with a se­nior Tal­iban of­fi­cial in Qatar, also said Ghani and Ab­dul­lah were act­ing in­con­sis­tent with agree­ments they made to support a U.S.-Tal­iban peace agree­ment signed last month. That deal called for in­tra-Afghan peace talks to be­gin within 10 days, by March 10, but they have not be­gun. Ghani and Ab­dul­lah have not yet even agreed on who should be part of the nonTal­iban del­e­ga­tion nor have they agreed to pris­oner swaps with the Tal­iban as en­vis­aged by the deal.

“It’s all gotta come to­gether,” Pom­peo said. Asked if the Tal­iban had also been act­ing “in­con­sis­tently” with the agree­ment, he replied: “No. They com­mit­ted to re­duc­ing vi­o­lence and they’ve largely done that and they are work­ing to­wards de­liv­er­ing their team to the ul­ti­mate ne­go­ti­a­tions.”

Pom­peo said the United States would con­tinue to with­draw its troops from Afghanista­n un­der the terms of its agree­ment with Tal­iban, which calls for the re­duc­tion in the next sev­eral months from about 13,000 to 8,600.

Pom­peo added that the U.S. would be will­ing to look again at the aid cuts if the two lead­ers can form an in­clu­sive gov­ern­ment and said Wash­ing­ton re­mained com­mit­ted to part­ner­ship with the peo­ple of Afghanista­n. As a demon­stra­tion of that, he said, the U.S. would pro­vide $15 mil­lion in as­sis­tance to help Afghanista­n fight the spread of the coron­avirus.

Pom­peo had left Afghanista­n ear­lier Mon­day with­out say­ing whether he was able to bro­ker an agree­ment be­tween the squab­bling po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. He’d trav­eled thou­sands of miles de­spite a near-global travel shut­down be­cause of the coron­avirus pan­demic, at a time when world lead­ers and states­men are cur­tail­ing of­fi­cial travel.

But as he de­parted there was no sign the im­passe was over and there were re­ports in Kabul that Pom­peo had given Ghani and Ab­dul­lah until Tues­day to come up with a com­pro­mise.

From Kabul, Pom­peo flew to Doha, Qatar, where he had wit­nessed the sign­ing of the U.S.Tal­iban deal on Feb. 29, to meet Tal­iban of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Mullah Ab­dul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Tal­iban and head of their po­lit­i­cal of­fice in Qatar. Baradar signed the agree­ment on be­half of the group. The State De­part­ment said Pom­peo’s aim was “to press the Tal­iban to con­tinue to com­ply with the agree­ment signed last month.”

Since the U.S.-Tal­iban deal was signed, the peace process has stalled amid po­lit­i­cal tur­moil in Afghanista­n, as Ghani and Ab­dul­lah re­mained dead­locked over who was elected pres­i­dent in last Septem­ber’s pres­i­den­tial polls. They both de­clared them­selves pres­i­dent in dueling in­au­gu­ra­tion cer­e­monies ear­lier this month.

The United States pays bil­lions ev­ery year to­ward the Afghan budget, in­clud­ing the coun­try’s de­fense forces. Afghanista­n barely raises a quar­ter of the rev­enue it needs to run the coun­try, giv­ing Pom­peo con­sid­er­able fi­nan­cial lever­age to force the two squab­bling lead­ers to over­come the im­passe.

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