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United States cuts aid to Afghanistan after Pompeo's visit

By
Don Jacobson & Danielle Haynes & Darryl Coote
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani meet in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday. Photo courtesy of Sediq Sediqqi/Afghan government
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani meet in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday. Photo courtesy of Sediq Sediqqi/Afghan government

March 23 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that the United States will immediately cut $1 billion in assistance to Afghanistan and threatened a further $1 billion reduction next year as the country's political rivals have failed to form a new government.

Pompeo made the announcement in a statement after he made an unannounced visit to Kabul to hold separate and combined talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, a candidate for president last year who has disputed the results of the election.

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In the statement, Pompeo said he "deeply regrets" that the political rivals have informed him of their inability to agree to an inclusive government that would break a political dispute that has gripped the government and stalled peace talks with the Taliban.

"The United States is disappointed in them and what their conduct means for Afghanistan and our shared interests," Pompeo said. "Their failure 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."

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As the failure directly threatens U.S. national interests, the Trump administration will be slashing assistance to Afghanistan and initiating a review of all U.S. programs and projects to find areas for additional reductions, he said.

"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," he said.

Pompeo later told reporters that neither Ghani nor Abdullah have been able to find a compromise but now "we're hopeful they'll get their act together."

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Asked what the Afghan leaders' reaction to the cuts were, Pompeo said, "their reaction was they understand that we are serious in this."

The disagreement between Ghani and Abdullah has hampered the Kabul government and fanned fears that the window to implement a historic peace deal between the United States and the Taliban is quickly closing.

According to Ghani's spokesman, Sediq Sediqqi, Ghani and Pompeo discussed the Afghan peace process and its next steps as well as the regional consensus on Afghan peace and current and political security issues.

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Abdullah said he and Pompeo talked "about the critical significance of the Afghan peace process as well as the need to resolve the current political crisis rooted in the recent election."

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The trip is the first venture abroad for Pompeo since the outbreak of the coronavirus disease.

The political crisis in Kabul has prevented the government from appointing a negotiating team to begin intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban -- a primary objective of the Qatar agreement.

"We are in a crisis," a State Department official told NBC News. "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 [has] stood in this 40-years-long war."

U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad last week urged the two sides to come to a political agreement, as did NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Ghani has balked at part of the deal that requires releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 government security officers held by the Taliban. It was to happen by March 10, but was delayed after the Afghan government proposed freeing 1,500 prisoners in increments, and then only after the talks had begun.

The Taliban rejected the proposal, which prompted Kabul to suspend the entire process.

Hopes that a prisoner exchange could be accomplished were rekindled over the weekend when Khalilzad said the United States and Qatar had "facilitated the first Afghan government to Taliban technical talks on prisoner releases, via Skype video conferencing."

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Meanwhile, the Taliban have resumed attacks on Afghan government forces.

An attack Friday at a security checkpoint killed more than two dozen soldiers and police officers in Zabul province. Investigators said it's believed several members of the Afghan security forces aided in the attack.

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