- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2019

As American negotiators inch closer to a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul remains heavily dependent on foreign money and military support to fight insurgent groups, finance its security forces, and prevent regional warlords from splintering the country, the top U.S. watchdog for the 18-year conflict warned Thursday.

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko issued his dire warning as part of the organization’s latest review of the Afghan war. The IG’s office, which is routinely critical of the U.S. handling of the Afghan conflict, issued a “2019 High-Risk List” that identified several faults within the Afghan military and government that could undermine any postwar period.

A weak economy and high levels of corruption mean that “without financial support from international donors, the government of Afghanistan cannot survive,” Mr. Sopko warned in a speech at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

U.S. and Taliban negotiators have reportedly agreed to a draft timeline for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the country. In response, the Taliban have agreed to cut all ties with groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State within all their ranks and join a unity government. But the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has complained loudly it has been excluded from the talks.

Over 2,400 U.S. service members have died in Afghanistan and Washington has poured over $780 billion into the country since launching combat operations just a month after the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

While Taliban leaders have thus far been willing to engage with U.S. diplomats to end the conflict, the danger posed by other terror groups waiting to take the Taliban’s place in the insurgency is growing, Mr. Sopko warned.

Islamic State fighters ousted by the recent defeat of the group’s “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq could be joining existing IS units fighting in Afghanistan. Other groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, are also looking to expand into Afghanistan’s northern provinces of Badakhshan and Kunduz.

Rogue Taliban leaders who refuse to accept the peace accord could also mount a insurgency against Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces, Mr. Sopko warned.

Efforts by the Ghani government to reintegrate Taliban fighters and commanders have also fallen short, Mr. Sopko said.

“Afghan government capacity generally remains weak and any reintegration efforts may suffer from the government’s inability to properly fund them,” he said Thursday.

Failing to fold back in the nearly 60,000 Taliban militants over the longer term “would threaten any peace agreement as disaffected former Taliban who may have been expecting a peace dividend may return to violent and predatory behavior,” he added.

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