Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Monday that the US government “will initiate a review of the scope of our cooperation with Afghanistan” and cut $1 billion in aid, effective immediately, due to the leadership impasse between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah.
The announcement came after the top US diplomat made unannounced visits to Kabul, Afghanistan and Doha, Qatar Monday to meet with key officials as efforts to broker a peace deal for Afghanistan are already on the rocks.
A senior State Department official said the trip to the Afghan capital was spurred by the dispute between the two, who have each claimed victory in the country’s presidential election.
“The fear is that unless this crisis gets resolved and resolved soon, that could affect the peace process which was an opportunity for this country that have stood in this 40 years long war,” the official said. “Now he’s come to help to push, to encourage and to point out what our expectations are and what that assessment is if if they don’t do the right thing.”
‘The United States is disappointed in them’
After an apparent failure to make progress in separate meetings with the leaders as well as a joint one, Pompeo said that the the leaders’ inability to agree on an inclusive government “has 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.”
“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,” Pompeo said in a statement released en route back to Washington. “The United States is disappointed in them and what their conduct means for Afghanistan and our shared interests.”
As part of the review of the two countries’ cooperation, Pompeo said the US is “today announcing a responsible adjustment to our spending in Afghanistan and immediately reducing assistance by $1 billion this year.” He added that the US government is “prepared to reduce by another $1 billion in 2021.”
“We will also initiate a review of all of our programs and projects to identify additional reductions, and reconsider our pledges to future donor conferences for Afghanistan,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo said in the statement that “should Afghan leaders choose to form an inclusive government that can provide security and participate in the peace process, the United States is prepared to support these efforts and revisit the reviews initiated today.”
Uncertain future for peace deal
Pompeo’s visit to Kabul was his first since the signing of the US-Taliban agreement in Doha last month – a historic agreement that was meant to trigger intra-Afghan negotiations and has already prompted an initial withdrawal of US troops. The future of that agreement has been called into question by continued violence by the Taliban against Afghan security forces and by a high-stakes political dispute in Kabul.
Following his day in Afghanistan, Pompeo traveled to Doha, where he met with Taliban officials “including Mullah Baradar, Taliban’s chief negotiator, to press the Taliban to continue to comply with the agreement signed last month,” according to State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus.
The top US diplomat was in the Qatari capital less than a month ago for the signing of the US-Taliban deal.
That agreement outlined a series of commitments related to troop levels, counterterrorism, and the intra-Afghan dialogue aimed at bringing about “a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire.”
“This is a hopeful moment, but it’s only the beginning,” Pompeo said at a news conference at the time. “There’s a great deal of hard work ahead on the diplomatic front.”
The US has begun withdrawing some troops from Afghanistan, part of the initial drawdown to 8,600, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan announced in early March. However, the intra-Afghan dialogue, which was written in the agreement as beginning on March 10, has yet to start.
According to US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, the Taliban and the Afghan government just a day ago held their first technical talks on prisoner releases – a major point of contention in moving forward with a dialogue between the two sides.
Khalilzad said the US and Qatar facilitated the talks, which were held via Skype videoconferencing.
“The over two-hour technical discussion today was important, serious, and detailed. My thanks to all sides. Everyone clearly understands the coronavirus threat makes prisoner releases that much more urgent,” he said on Twitter Sunday. “All sides conveyed their strong commitment to a reduction of violence, intra-Afghan negotiations, and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire. We have also agreed to a follow-on technical meeting in the next two days.”
A source close to the Taliban described the talks as only about the prisoners, and the Taliban spokesman described the Skype call as lasting an hour and a half involving just a handful of representatives from each side.
A very senior source in the Afghan government called the technical talks with the Taliban “a positive step ahead.”
“This shows Taliban can’t and should not bypass the Afghan government if they are sincere on peace,” they said.
CNN’s Nic Robertson in London, Raja Razek in Atlanta and Ehsan Popalzai in Kabul contributed to this report.