Afghans walk through a crowded market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 22, 2020.
FILE - Afghans walk through a crowded market in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 22, 2020. The country now faces a potential cut in U.S. aid.

WASHINGTON - While the government of President Ashraf Ghani downplays the repercussions of a potential $1 billion cut in U.S. aid to Afghanistan, ordinary Afghans and experts warn the country is not in a position to withstand such a financial blow as it struggles with ongoing political instability that threatens the country’s peace process and growing fears of a COVID-19 outbreak.

“A $1 billion cut in U.S. aid would be a significant blow to the country. Afghanistan’s GDP is only about $20 billion per year, and much of that comes from international donations,” Johnathan Schroden, an expert on Afghanistan and director of Stability and Development Program at Washington-based think tank Center for Naval Analysis (CAN), told VOA.

“Secretary Pompeo has made clear that the U.S. would prioritize continued support to Afghanistan’s security forces, but U.S. civilian-sector assistance to Afghanistan is about $500 million this year, so even if they zeroed that out, to reach $1 billion would still require a $500 million cut to military aid,” Schroden said.

He said if the U.S. cuts aid to Afghanistan, its NATO allies will likely follow suit, creating a compounding effect.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Afghanistan this week to help resolve the political impasse between President Ghani and his election rival and former chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah. Both declared themselves winners in the contested presidential election last year.

Pompeo expressed U.S. disappointment over the failure of the leaders to form a government.

“The United States is disappointed in them and what their conduct means for Afghanistan and our shared interests,” Pompeo said in a strongly worded statement after his departure from Kabul.

“Their failure has 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,” he said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo travels to Afghanistan amid coronavirus outbreak, sending a strong signal about U.S. interest in salvaging the peace process.

Ghani’s reaction

While expressing gratitude for continued U.S. assistance to Afghanistan, Ghani, reacting Tuesday to the potential cut in U.S. aid, said it would not have direct impact on key sectors.

“In order to compensate for the cut in U.S. aid [to Afghanistan], I will conduct an overall assessment of our budget and will report to you as soon as possible,” Ghani said. “However, in the meantime, I can assure you that reduction in U.S. aid will not have a direct impact on our key sectors."

But Shukria Barakzai, Afghanistan’s former ambassador to Norway, said the U.S. statement has a message.

"The statement has a clear message that is more serious than the economic assistance, and that is a political one. If the U.S. stops supporting the current political system, I think that would be the worst-case scenario for Afghanistan,” Barakzai said.

Matt Dearing, an assistant professor at Washington-based National Defense University, seconds Barakzai’s concerns and charges that the cut in aid poses serious risks for the country.

“At a time where Afghan domestic politics are at their worst, an aid cut is incredibly risky and could break the country in two,” Dearing said.

“We should remember that it is was not the withdrawal of Soviet troops that led to the fall of the Afghan government [1989], rather the end of aid in 1992,” he added.

Alternative resources

Ghani said his government will try to fill the vacuum with the help of alternative resources.

Javid Ahmad, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said he thinks the Afghan government will tap into the country’s cash reserve while trying to find a solution to end the political crisis and reverse Washington’s decision.

“More immediately, the country’s $8 billion cash reserves and cutbacks in security expenditures are likely to provide short-term support as Afghan leaders make another attempt to break the political impasse, permitting the U.S. to reverse the decision,” Ahmad said.

Ahmad warned that if the U.S. proceeds with it is decision, the potential slash in U.S. aid will cut into the military aid Washington has been providing Afghanistan to support its security sector.

“The cutback, still under review, is unlikely to affect the basic functions of the Afghan government, but it will exact a toll on the security sector that consumes the bulk of the Afghan budget,” he added.

Ordinary Afghans

Meanwhile, ordinary Afghans are worried that the loss of $1 billion in U.S. assistance would have a direct impact on their lives.

“If this $1 billion that the U.S. gives to Afghanistan is reduced, it would not have any effects on Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. But ordinary people would suffer,” Ainullah Attal, a Kabul resident, told VOA.

“Our leaders, Abdullah Abdullah and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, should sit with each other and make peace for the people, country and God’s sake,” Abdullah Jan, another Kabul resident, told VOA.

Ghani and Abdullah shared power in the contested presidential elections of 2014 following months of a political crisis that almost took the country to the brink of civil war before former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry helped broker a deal that led to the creation of the National Unity Government (NUG).

Both Afghan leaders vowed not to compromise politically this time, despite Pompeo’s visit.

"In the current situation, reducing that much money is a great loss [for Afghanistan]. But there is no alternative; President Ghani has made some promises during his reelection campaign. One of those promises was that he won’t be making a power-sharing government,” Kabir Ranjbar, a political analyst and former member of Afghan parliament, told VOA.

Ghani’s rival, Abdullah, has not publicly said that his team would consider a similar arrangement but has shown a willingness to negotiate.

Ghani said Tuesday that he has offered Abdullah a key role in the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban and Cabinet positions to his allies but charged that Abdullah’s demands of changing the constitution were beyond his authority.

Impact on peace talks

There is growing frustration among Afghans over the ongoing political impasse between the two leaders will add to the growing fears of a COVID-19 outbreak in the country and have an impact on the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban.

“If Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ashraf Ghani were on good terms with each other, we would have the intra-Afghan talks started,” Shah Wazir Tarakhil, a member of the Afghan parliament, told VOA.

On his way to Qatar to meet with representatives of the Taliban, Pompeo told reporters the U.S. was committed to the peace deal with the Taliban.

“We are proceeding with the conditions-based withdrawal of our forces in accordance with the U.S.-Taliban agreement,” Pompeo said. “The United States remains convinced that a political settlement is the only solution to the conflict.”

The war in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. service members and cost the U.S.nearly $1 trillion.

VOA’s Rahim Gul Sarwan from Kabul and Cindy Saine from Washington contributed to this report.