U.S. to reduce Afghan aid by $1 billion after Pompeo fails to break impasse

By Humeyra Pamuk, Hamid Shalizi and Charlotte Greenfield
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U.S. to reduce Afghan aid by $1 billion after Pompeo fails to break impasse

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Kabul

By Humeyra Pamuk, Hamid Shalizi and Charlotte Greenfield

DOHA/KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday announced a $1 billion cut in U.S. aid to Afghanistan after he failed to convince Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political foe to end a feud that has helped jeopardise a U.S.-led peace effort.

The United States also is prepared to cut 2021 assistance by the same amount and is conducting "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 in a statement.

Pompeo's statement came as he flew home from a fruitless day-long effort in Kabul to end competing claims to the presidency by Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and win their agreement to form "an inclusive government."

The harshly worded announcement at the end of the mission he undertook despite the spreading global coronavirus pandemic underscored how badly stalled the U.S.-led effort to end America's longest war and decades of strife in Afghanistan has become.

The United States "deeply regrets" that Ghani and Abdullah were "unable to agree on an inclusive government," said Pompeo, adding that "their failure has harmed U.S.-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonours those Afghan, Americans, and Coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure."

"We are today announcing a responsible adjustment to our spending in Afghanistan and immediately reducing assistance by $1 billion this year. We are prepared to reduce by another $1 billion in 2021," he said. "We will also initiate a review of all of our programs and projects to identify additional reductions."

On his way back to Washington, Pompeo landed at a military base in Qatar for a 75-minute meeting with Taliban officials, including their top negotiator, Mullah Baradar Akhund.

Speaking to reporters after departing Qatar, Pompeo declined to detail how the $1 billion in aid cuts would be apportioned or whether he set a deadline to settle their dispute.

But he indicated that the aid cut could be cancelled if they came to an agreement.

"We are hopeful, frankly, that they will get their act together and we won’t have to do it. But we’re prepared to do that," he said.

On Tuesday, in speech carried by state broadcaster RTA, Ghani said the cut in aid would not affect key areas and further discussions would be held to resolve the issue with Abdullah.

"I met with Dr Abdullah Abdullah...and wanted to offer him a central role in the peace process and positions in the cabinet to his allies but he emphasized an amendment of the constitution," Ghani said, adding the amendment was "impossible."

Two sources told Reuters that Abdullah had wanted a change in the constitution in order to create a position of 'prime minister' to reduce the amount of power concentrated in the president's hands.

Pompeo's mission came nearly a month after his last visit to Doha for the signing of the Feb. 29 deal with Taliban.

Pompeo said the United States would keep backing Afghan security forces while continuing a phased "conditions-based" troop withdrawal as specified in a deal signed with the Taliban in Doha on Feb. 29.

He said that despite ongoing fighting, the Taliban largely have fulfilled a commitment to reduce violence and were working to form a team for intra-Afghan peace talks.

The agreement was to have been followed by negotiations on a political settlement to decades of strife between the insurgents and a delegation of Afghans that would include government officials.

But the process stalled over a Taliban demand for the release by Kabul of 5,000 prisoners and the feud between Ghani and Abdullah, both of whom claimed the presidency following a disputed September election marred by allegations of fraud.

While in Kabul, Pompeo met with Ghani and Abdullah, both separately and together.

Absent from the meetings was the chief U.S. negotiator, U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born veteran diplomat. It was not immediately known why Khalilzad was not included.

A senior State Department official, speaking before the meetings ended, said the purpose of Pompeo's visit was to try to mediate a solution between the two men.

"The fear is that unless this crisis gets resolved ... soon, that could affect the peace process ... our agreement with the Talibs could be put at risk," the official said.

Omid Maisam, a spokesman for Abdullah, had said on Monday that if there were more meetings a solution was "not impossible" and that they wanted a peaceful end to the crisis.

In February, Afghanistan's Electoral Commission announced incumbent Ghani as the winner of the presidential election, but Abdullah said he and his allies had won and insisted that he would form a government.

Key sticking points in recent weeks between the two men have included Abdullah's desire to retain the role of chief executive, which he held in the previous government, and that his camp be given more ministerial roles than Ghani was offering, according to a diplomat in Kabul and an aide to Abdullah.


(Additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi; writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Nick Tattersall, Leslie Adler, Tom Brown and Cynthia Osterman & Simon Cameron-Moore)