- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2020

One of President Trump’s top foreign policy priorities appeared on the verge of collapse Monday after the U.S. announced it was slashing aid to the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan as a feud between its leaders threatens to undermine a delicate peace deal inked last month between the Trump administration and Taliban.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the announcement in an unusually blunt statement after a whirlwind day of diplomacy in which he made an unannounced trip to Kabul.

The half-day visit evidently failed to resolve a bitter power battle between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and chief rival Abdullah Abdullah, both of whom claim to have won the country’s disputed September presidential election.

Despite separate and joint talks with the visiting American diplomat Monday, the two men “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,” the State Department said Monday evening.

Mr. 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, American and coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country.”

The State Department said aid this year would be slashed by $1 billion, and a similar amount could be cut in 2021. Other aid programs will also be reviewed for “additional reductions.”

The impasse puts in doubt Mr. Trump’s plans to withdraw the bulk of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in the coming months, ending the combat role in what is now the country’s longest war.

But the Trump administration took its own risks in negotiating a deal with the Taliban — including plans for Mr. Trump’s long-sought withdrawal of American combat troops — without including the U.S.-backed Kabul government, banking on being able to bring Mr. Ghani’s government into power-sharing talks later.

Kabul has long chafed at being excluded, and the power struggle between its leaders is casting a heavy cloud over prospective direct talks with the Taliban.

Delayed talks

Talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government were supposed to begin 10 days after the initial deal was signed on Feb. 29 between American and Taliban representatives in Qatar. The Pentagon has already begun withdrawing about a third of the 13,000 U.S. combat troops in Afghanistan, with the rest slated to go home even as a permanent power-sharing deal is negotiated.

The intra-Afghan talks were supposed to have kicked off with a prisoner exchange, with the Afghan government having promised to free some 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the Taliban would free some 1,000 Afghan officials and soldiers. But the exchange has yet to occur amid reports that Mr. Ghani has refused to authorize it.

And while Taliban attacks on U.S. and allied forces have fallen off, the radical Islamist group has resumed strikes on Afghan government forces, including an attack over the weekend that killed at least 27.

From Kabul, Mr. Pompeo flew to Doha, Qatar, where he was to meet with top Taliban officials, the Associated Press reported. The State Department said Mr. Pompeo’s aim was “to press the Taliban to continue to comply with the agreement signed last month.”

Mr. Pompeo’s surprise mediation trip to Kabul came as U.S. special Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad scrambles to get the two sides to the table just to start talking.

Mr. Khalilzad tweeted Sunday that U.S. and Qatari officials had “facilitated the first Afghan government to Taliban technical talks on prisoner releases, via Skype video conferencing.”

He described discussion as “important, serious and detailed,” saying it lasted more than two hours. “All sides conveyed their strong commitment to a reduction of violence, intra-Afghan negotiations, and a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “We have also agreed to a follow-on technical meeting in the next two days.”

It was unclear as of Monday night how quickly the next meeting, let alone wider intra-Afghan talks, will be organized, particularly in light of Mr. Pompeo’s blunt criticisms.

A final pullout of U.S. and NATO troops is not technically dependent on the success of intra-Afghan negotiations, but rather on promises made by the Taliban to deny space in Afghanistan to other terror groups.

High-level intervention

Mr. Pompeo surprise lightning visit Monday, analysts said, was a clear sign the situation warranted a high-level intervention.

“Secretary Pompeo and his team are the glue that’s keeping the whole Afghan peace deal together, … and they want to make sure right now that we don’t lose momentum,” said Daniel Hoffman, a former high-level CIA officer and geopolitics expert.

The decision to travel to Afghanistan — a trip officials said featured just eight hours on the ground in Kabul Monday — came after Mr. Pompeo cancelled at least two domestic trips because of the coronavirus outbreak, including a G-7 foreign ministers’ summit in Pittsburgh that will now take place via video conference.

The Pentagon on Friday issued a 14-day “stop movement” order on all American forces headed to or leaving the region. But U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in Afghanistan, said in a statement that the order is “not expected to delay the drawdown in forces from Afghanistan as part of the U.S. agreement with the Taliban.”

Mr. Pompeo reportedly held meetings in Kabul first with Mr. Ghani and then Mr. Abdullah before meeting with the two of them together. The Associated Press reported the secretary of state’s schedule also had the two Afghans coming together for a separate one-on-one meeting, presumably to discuss a possible compromise.

The United States pays billions of dollars 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 Mr. Pompeo considerable financial leverage over the Afghan leaders.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• David R. Sands can be reached at dsands@washingtontimes.com.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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