KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - Afghanistan's Interior Minister Masoud Andarabi warned on Saturday against a hasty U.S. retreat from the war-ravaged country, saying that the Taliban's ties to al-Qaida remain intact and that a swift pullout would worsen global counterterrorism efforts.
In an interview with The Associated Press at the heavily fortified Interior Ministry, Andarabi said that Afghan National Security Forces backed by U.S. assistance have so far put a squeeze on terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, including the local Islamic State affiliate.
A hasty, "uncalculated withdrawal could certainly give an opportunity for those terrorists … to threaten the world," he said from inside the compound, protected by concrete blast walls, barbed wire and a phalanx of security guards.
The warning came as Washington is reviewing a deal the Trump administration struck with the Taliban more than a year ago that calls for the withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops by May 1.
That deal also calls for the Taliban to break ties with terrorist groups, like al-Qaida. U.S. officials have previously said some progress has been seen but more was needed, without elaborating.
No decisions have been made on the review but U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is trying to jump-start a stalled peace process between the government and Taliban armed opposition, has warned Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that all options are still on the table, and that he should step up peacemaking efforts.
Andarabi challenged Blinken's prediction last weekend that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would yield territorial gains to the Taliban, saying that Afghan troops could hold territory, but still needed aid and air support to maintain remote checkpoints.
"The Afghan security forces are fully capable of defending the capital and the cities and the territories that we are present in right now," he said. "We think that the Afghan security forces this year have proven to the Taliban that they will not be able to gain territory."
While the Taliban have not attacked U.S. or NATO forces as a condition of the agreement, the Afghan National Security Forces have faced some blistering assaults.
Since the U.S. signed the deal with the Taliban, violence has spiked, with poverty and high unemployment boosting crime. Despite billions of dollars in international aid to Afghanistan since the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001, 72% of Afghanistan's 37 million people live below the poverty line, surviving on $1.90 or less per day. Unemployment hovers around 30%.
Residents of the Afghan capital of Kabul are terrorized by runaway crime, bombings and assassinations. Residents complain bitterly of security failures.
Andarabi sympathized with citizens' complaints, but he said nearly 70% of Afghanistan's police force is battling the Taliban, eroding efforts to maintain law and order. Every day the police confront more than 100 Taliban attacks throughout the country, he added.
Even the U.N. Security Council has expressed concern at the targeted killings, aimed at civil society activists, journalists, lawyers and judges. The Islamic State has taken responsibility for many, but the Taliban and the government blame each other for the spike in attacks.
At a press briefing on Friday, the Security Council "called for an immediate end to these targeted attacks and stressed the urgent and imperative need to bring the perpetrators to justice."
Andarabi said some progress had been made to stem the violence in the past month, with more than 400 arrests.
But he underlined that Afghanistan still very much needs continued support from the international community, including the United States and NATO, in both war and peacetime.
It will take, for example, great effort to reintegrate into a peacetime society the tens of thousands of armed men roving the country — regardless from which faction they hail, he said.
Police face a daunting anti-narcotics battle in a country that produces more than 4,000 tons of opium, the raw material used to make heroin, more than every other opium-producing country combined. Peace, said Andarabi, would free the police to fight the drug war that is also fueling Afghanistan's soaring crime rate.