ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - The United States has linked international aid for Afghanistan to the settlement of a protracted political crisis, which has seen the war-shattered country politically paralyzed and threatens to derail a nascent peace-building deal with the Taliban insurgency.
Separately, an American military spokesman has rejected insurgent allegations it was violating terms of the U.S.-Taliban deal signed on February 29.
The political stalemate between President Ashraf Ghani and his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, stems from the disputed September 28 Afghan election.
The national election commission declared Ghani as the winner but Abdullah, the runner-up, rejected the outcome as fraudulent. Both men held rival presidential inaugurations early last month.
“It can’t be business as usual for international donors in Afghanistan,” Alice Wells, the top American diplomat for South and Central Asian affairs, warned in a tweet Sunday.
“International aid requires partnership with an inclusive government and we all must hold Afghan leaders accountable to agree on a governing arrangement,” wrote Wells, the principal deputy assistant secretary.
On March 23, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited Kabul to mediate between the two Afghan rivals but failed in his mission. Pompeo immediately announced a $1 billion reduction in aid to Afghanistan this year, and potentially another $1 billion in 2021 unless the political feud is settled and an inclusive government is formed in Kabul.
US-Taliban Deal under Scrutiny
On Sunday, the Taliban accused Washington of not upholding commitments under the agreement the two adversaries signed in Doha, Qatar.
The insurgent group asserted and alleged that while it is respecting the deal and reducing battlefield violence, American and coalition forces in recent days have carried out airstrikes against non-combat targets in Taliban-held areas.
The Taliban statement listed a number of other alleged violations, including the delay in releasing 5,000 Taliban prisoners under a prisoner swap with the Afghan government, a move it said outlined in the accord.
“If such a breach continued, it would create an atmosphere of mistrust that will not only damage the agreements; but also force Mujahideen (insurgents) to similar response and will increase the level of fighting,” warned the Taliban.
But the U.S. military spokesman swiftly rejected the insurgent allegations and assertions.
“U.S. Forces-Afghanistan has upheld, and continues to uphold, the military terms of the U.S.-TB (Taliban) agreement; any assertion otherwise is baseless,” tweeted Col Sonny Leggett. He stressed that in compliance with the agreement, the U.S. military will defend Afghan security forces if attacked.
Leggett was apparently referring to recent Taliban attacks against government positions that killed dozens of Afghan forces and overran territory.
“The TB (Taliban) must reduce violence. A reduction in violence is the will of the Afghan people & necessary to allow the political process to work toward a settlement suitable for all Afghans,” stressed the military spokesman.
The U.S.-Taliban deal requires the insurgents to engage in negotiations with Afghan political and civil society representatives to negotiate a sustainable peace and power sharing.
But the Taliban insists it is committed to engage in intra-Afghan talks only after the release of all 5,000 insurgent prisoners. The prisoner exchange requires the Taliban to free 1,000 detainees, mostly Afghan forces.
Looming COVID-19 threat
The Ghani-Abdullah feud and growing fears of increase in hostilities in spring come as the threat of pandemic coronavirus looms over Afghanistan.
The country has confirmed the number of COVID-19 infections stood at nearly 350 as of Saturday, including four foreign troops. At least seven Afghans have died from the virus and officials say the number of infections are likely to increase, citing capacity issues.
“We once again call on all parties to focus their efforts on the global pandemic of COVID-19,” said Col Leggett.
The U.S.-Taliban agreement binds the Islamist group to prevent terrorists from using Afghanistan as a base for international attacks.
In return, American and coalition partners are committed to withdraw all their forces from Afghanistan in 14 months and the “conditions-based” drawdown has already begun.