Washington is reducing aid and is prepared to cut a similar amount in 2021 because of the ongoing feud between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his political rival Abdullah Abdullah, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Kabul, Afghanistan March 23, 2020.
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Kabul, Afghanistan March 23, 2020. (Reuters)

US will slash assistance to Afghanistan and threatened further reductions in all forms of cooperation after the country's rival leaders failed to agree on forming a new government, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday. 

The announcement came from Pompeo after he made an unannounced visit to Kabul to meet with rival leaders President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. Each has declared himself president of the country after disputed elections last year.

In an unusually harsh statement, Pompeo slammed the two men for being unable to work together and threatening a potential peace deal that could end America's longest-running conflict.

"The United States deeply regrets that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have informed Secretary Pompeo that they 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," he said.

Pompeo said the US was "disappointed" in both men and their conduct, which he said has "harmed US-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonours those Afghan, American, and coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country."

Pompeo said their inability to work together posed a "direct threat" to US national interests, and the administration would begin an immediate review of all its support programmes for Afghanistan, starting with a reduction of $1 billion in aid this year. 

He said it could be reduced by another billion dollars in 2021.

"We have made clear to the leadership that we will not back security operations that are politically motivated, nor support political leaders who order such operations or those who advocate for or support parallel government," Pompeo said.

Pompeo, who after leaving Kabul met with a senior Taliban official in Qatar, also said Ghani and Abdullah were acting inconsistently with agreements they made to support a US-Taliban peace agreement signed last month.

Peace deal with Taliban

Pompeo was in Kabul on an urgent visit to try to move forward a US peace deal signed last month with the Taliban, a trip that comes despite the coronavirus pandemic, at a time when world leaders and statesmen are curtailing official travel.

Since the signing of the deal, the peace process has stalled amid political turmoil in Afghanistan, with the country's leaders squabbling over who was elected president.

President Ghani and his main rival in last September's presidential polls, Abdullah, have both declared themselves the country's president in duelling inauguration ceremonies earlier this month.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (C) reacts following loud explosions heard during his swearing-in at the inauguration ceremony as the country's leader, at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on March 9, 2020.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (C) reacts following loud explosions heard during his swearing-in at the inauguration ceremony as the country's leader, at the Presidential Palace in Kabul on March 9, 2020. (Wakil Kohsar / AFP)

The United States pays billions every year toward the Afghan budget, including the country's defence forces. Afghanistan barely raises a quarter of the revenue it needs to run the country, giving Pompeo considerable financial leverage to force the two squabbling leaders to overcome the impasse.

The political turmoil has put on hold the start of intra-Afghan peace talks that would include the Taliban. 

Those talks are seen as a critical next step in the peace deal, negotiated to allow the United States to bring home its troops and give Afghans the best chance at peace.

“We are in a crisis," a State Department official told reporters accompanying Pompeo. 

"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.

And our agreement with the Taliban could be put at risk."

The official briefed reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss US concerns.

The US and NATO have already begun to withdraw some troops from Afghanistan. 

The final pullout of US forces is not 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, such as the insurgents' rival Islamic State group.

But within days of the US and the Taliban signing the peace deal in Qatar on February 29, Afghanistan sunk into a political crisis with Ghani and Abdullah squaring off over election results and Ghani refusing to fulfil his part of a promise made in the US-Taliban deal to free up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners. 

The insurgents were for their part, to free 1,000 Afghan officials and soldiers they hold captive. The exchange was meant to be a good-will gesture by both sides to start the negotiations.

The urgency of Pompeo's surprise visit was highlighted by the fact that the State Department has warned American citizens against all international travel, citing the spread of the new coronavirus.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (centre-right), and Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib (centre-left), review an honour guard during an arrival ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 23, 2020.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (centre-right), and Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib (centre-left), review an honour guard during an arrival ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, March 23, 2020. (Afghan Presidential Palace / AP)

Pompeo has cancelled at least two domestic US trips because of the outbreak, including one to a now-cancelled G7 foreign ministers meeting that was to have taken place in Pittsburgh this week. That meeting will now take place by video conference.

Pompeo’s last overseas trip in late February was to Doha, Qatar, for the signing of the US-Taliban peace deal he is now trying to salvage.

Pompeo under fire over coronavirus

As the virus pandemic has worsened, causing many nations to close their borders and airports and cancel international flights, Pompeo and the State Department have come under increasing criticism for not doing enough to help Americans stranded overseas get home.

On Saturday, just hours before he departed on his unannounced trip to Afghanistan, Pompeo was roundly attacked on social media for a photo he posted to his personal Twitter account of him and his wife, Susan, at home working on a jigsaw puzzle with a scene from the Tom Cruise film "Top Gun" on a TV screen. 

"Susan and I are staying in and doing a puzzle this afternoon. Pro tip: if you're missing the beach, just throw on Top Gun!” the caption read.

Many of the critics took Pompeo to task for apparently not working while thousands of Americans are struggling to find transportation home from various countries.

Exchange of prisoners

Washington’s peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been trying to jumpstart talks between Afghans on both sides of the conflict — the next critical step in the US-Taliban deal — tweeted early Monday that the two sides are talking about the prisoner exchange.

The intra-Afghan negotiations were never going to be easy but since Washington signed the peace deal with the Taliban, it has struggled to get the Afghan government to at least offer a unified position.

Pompeo's visit is also extraordinary for the fact that the US, like the United Nations, had earlier said it would not again be drawn into mediating between feuding Afghan politicians. 

While the Afghan election committee this time gave the win to Ghani, Abdullah and the election complaints commission charged widespread irregularities to challenge Ghani’s win.

In Afghanistan's previous presidential election in 2014, also marred by widespread fraud and deeply disputed results, Ghani and Abdullah emerged as leading contenders. 

Then-US secretary of state John Kerry mediated between the two and eventually cobbled together a so-called unity government, with Ghani as president and Abdullah holding the newly created but equal in statue post of the country's chief executive.

However, the Ghani-Abdullah partnership was a difficult one, and for much of its five years triggered a parliamentary paralysis leading up to the September balloting.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies