- The Washington Times
Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani played down the Trump administration’s decision to slash $1 billion in U.S. funding for his government Tuesday, claiming it “will not have a direct impact” on key sectors in Kabul, despite warnings from regional experts that the consequences could be dire.

Mr. Ghani gave no public hint his government was giving in to rising impatience from Washington, which fears the political dysfunction in Kabul will undermine a new peace accord struck with the radical Taliban insurgency.

“I can assure you that a reduction in the U.S. aid will not have a direct impact on our key sectors and areas, and we will strive to fill the gap with both austerity measures and alternative sources,” Mr. Ghani said in a nationwide address.

Just a day earlier, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had announced the funding cut in a bluntly critical statement after a surprise visit to Kabul failed to resolve the standoff between Mr. Ghani and opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, who both claim to be the country’s legitimate ruler.

While U.S. forces have already begun pulling out of Afghanistan, the long-term viability of the U.S. plan depends on direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government — talks that have yet to even get going because of the clash between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah.

Mr. Pompeo sharply criticized the two in a statement Monday night for failing to form a united government that can negotiate with the Taliban, which had long sought to topple Kabul prior to entering into last month’s historic peace agreement with U.S. officials.

While the secretary of state told reporters the United States will continue to back Afghan security forces, he said aid was being cut from $1 billion this year, other aid programs were being evaluated, and another $1 billion cut from the total $4.5 billion annual aid package to Kabul is coming 2021.

He told reporters after his Kabul visit the Taliban were being more cooperative about the peace talks than was the Ghani government.

Some lawmakers cheered Mr. Pompeo‘s move on Tuesday, hoping it would pressure the Afghans to act..

“Without a functioning government, Afghanistan is becoming a hopeless cause,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. “The only way to avoid this is for [Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah] to reconcile their differences quickly.”

But even if the two can reconcile, the aid cut could increase momentum for a U.S. troop withdrawal — long sought by President Trump — even if it leaves Kabul in political chaos and under siege from the Taliban.

Regional analysts have noted the timing of Mr. Pompeo‘s announcement as Washington is consumed with a domestic crisis and economic implosion that will leave little appetite for continued aid to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan‘s government could face a dire threat if Washington decides that at a time of economic freefall, it can no longer justify the huge expenditures on which Afghanistan‘s government depends,” said Johnny Walsh, a former U.S. diplomat focused on Afghan deliberations, now with the U.S. Institute of Peace. “This could be especially damaging as Afghanistan confronts its own vast COVID-19 threat and remains mired in the world’s most violent conflict.”

The virus is already threatening the U.S.-led NATO military mission in Afghanistan, which said Tuesday that four of its personnel have tested positive and that some 1,500 service members and civilians in the nation are currently living in “screening facilities.”

The Afghan government is also scrambling to confront COVID-19, with 42 confirmed cases and fears of a significantly higher outbreak to come in a country with a rudimentary public health system.

But Mr. Ghani vowed Tuesday in a televised address to find ways to bolster the Afghan government’s budget, which relies on funding from the United States and other nations for three-quarters of its funding base.

“We will strive to fill the gap with both austerity measures and alternative sources,” said Mr. Ghani, according to Radio Free Europe, which reported that the Afghan president and Mr. Abdullah blamed each other in competing statements for failing to resolve their feud.

Mr. Pompeo, meanwhile, was quiet on the dispute Tuesday, although he issued a statement condemning a recent attack on a female Afghan mayor who had been recognized in early March for a State Department’s International Women of Courage award.

Zarifa Ghafari of Afghanistan‘s Wardak province was not injured in the attack Sunday in which unidentified gunmen opened fire on her vehicle, according to local reports.

⦁ Ben Wolfgang and Lauren Meier contributed to this report.

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