KABUL — A wave of shock and anger spread here Tuesday as Afghans learned that U.S. officials plan to cut $1 billion in aid after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a brief visit here Monday, had failed to resolve a power struggle between President Ashraf Ghani and his top political rival that threatens to undermine a future peace accord with Taliban insurgents.
Ghani, in a brief address to the nation, tried to appear calm and in control of the unraveling situation. He assured the public that he would find “contingency” funds to make up for the aid loss and said “the door is still open” to negotiations with Abdullah, who has insisted he was cheated out of the presidency in September elections and intends to form a parallel government.
“We offered Dr. Abdullah a significant role in the peace process, but he wanted a system that is not in our constitution, something I do not have the power to change,” Ghani said. Abdullah, who has unhappily shared power with Ghani for the past five years as chief executive, demanded to be given a higher rank with prime ministerial powers in exchange for abandoning his rogue quest for a separate government.
In a statement Tuesday, Abdullah thanked Pompeo for trying to solve the crisis but said the opportunity created by his visit had not been “used properly.” He said he still viewed dialogue as the best way to solve problems and that “the restoration of peace is a priority for us.” He declared that Afghan security forces would retain “full impartiality under any situation.”
But Pompeo, who spent hours in discussions with both men but left Monday evening with nothing to show for it, expressed sharp disappointment with them. In a statement he said their intransigent conduct “posed a direct threat” to U.S. interests and “dishonors” Afghans and their foreign partners who “sacrificed their lives and treasure” to build “a new future” for the country.
Pompeo said the Trump administration would “begin an immediate review” of all aid to Afghanistan, starting with a reduction of $1 billion this year. He mentioned no details or timing of the cuts, however, and later told reporters he hoped Ghani and Abdullah would “get their act together and we won’t have to do it.”
In contrast to his harsh rebuke of the leaders in Kabul, Pompeo praised the Taliban after meeting with their top negotiator in Qatar on Monday night. He said that the insurgents had “largely” fulfilled their part of a peace deal signed with U.S. officials there Feb. 29, and that the U.S. government would continue its planned gradual troop withdrawal.
The Taliban, in turn, issued a statement Tuesday that described the meeting between Pompeo and Mullah Baradar Akhund in which both agreed that a “rigid implementation” of the agreement’s terms would “pave the way for intra-Afghan negotiations,” along with “enduring peace” and “a future Islamic government.”
It also said Pompeo “gave assurances” that the withdrawal of U.S. forces will continue on their agreed timetable, which would reduce troops from about 14,000 to 8,600 in the next several months and then pull out most others by the end of the year. But the insurgents are continuing an aggressive battlefield campaign that has killed hundreds of Afghan security forces in the past month.
The statements by Ghani and Abdullah, although reassuring in tone, left no doubt that they are still at loggerheads nearly two weeks after holding dueling inaugurations, even though both U.S. diplomats and numerous influential Afghans have since tried to mediate.
With the U.S. threatening to cut aid to Kabul while moving to carry out its pledges to the Taliban insurgents, many Afghans Tuesday expressed a mixture of disgust at their leaders and fear of what may lie ahead. Some predicted that the Taliban would soon fill the power vacuum and start dismantling many of the democratic rights and freedoms gained over the past two decades.
“I feel so sad today,” said Ehsanullah Zia, a former senior Afghan official who now heads the Kabul office of the nonprofit U.S. Institution for Peace. “If our leaders don’t sort out their differences, I fear the patience of the world will run out. They are putting personal interests above the national interests. That is the story of our history,” he added gloomily. “Nobody is willing to sacrifice for the republic.”
Some observers placed equal blame on Ghani and Abdullah; others took sides. Former president Hamid Karzai, who supports Abdullah, said he had “showed a lot of flexibility and willingness to reconcile, but Ghani rejected his proposals.” Even though Pompeo also failed to reconcile them, Karzai said he and others would continue to try to mediate. “So much is at stake,” he said. “We can’t just give up.”
A senior aide to Ghani, speaking on condition of anonymity to be candid, blamed Abdullah for “wanting too much” for himself at a time when far greater issues are weighing on the country, especially launching now-delayed talks between Afghan leaders and the insurgents to end the 18-year war and forge a future government.
“This is not an individual fight. It is a fight for the country’s future,” the aide said. “We hope it’s not too late for them to reconcile. If we fail, the results will be worse not only for Afghanistan, but for the region, the United States and the world.”