KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – As President Donald Trump repeatedly expressed fatigue with the long Afghan war, the concern among leaders in Kabul was not that the United States would pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan but that it would cut crucial funding.
On Tuesday, a day after a frustrated U.S. officials announced $1 billion in immediate aid reductions and threatened to cut $1 billion more next year, President Ashraf Ghani put on a brave face.
In an address to the nation, Ghani said that his government had contingency plans and that aid cuts would not affect central functions.
But in private, several of his senior officials, as well as lawmakers and economists, expressed deep concern.
The United States cut the aid because Afghan leaders were unable to resolve a political impasse that is threatening to derail an American plan to end the long conflict.
But Afghans now fear the decision could push the country, almost entirely dependent on foreign aid, past the tipping point. They believe it could lead to the unraveling of an already challenged government and the disintegration of a weary and overstretched security force.
Afghanistan uses foreign aid not just to pay basic expenses but also for its war against the resurgent Taliban. Ghani has said his army would not last more than six months if the United States cut funding. At the end of the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, the Moscow-backed government of Afghanistan collapsed when the money dried up.
“The fighting continues in 10 to 16 provinces every day. More than 50 percent of our people are below the poverty line and we are mostly reliant on international aid,” Shahgul Rezai, a member of the Afghan parliament, said. “Afghanistan may not be able to survive the reduction.”
Now the country faces not just the shock of an abrupt funding cut but also several more crises — a split government, the raging war with the Taliban and the spread of the coronavirus — that have brought it to a brink.
On Tuesday, Afghanistan’s health minister said coronavirus could infect up to 80% of the population. The U.S.-led NATO military mission said four of its service members had tested positive, and 1,500 were being screened.
Months of political tensions, leading to a split government where two men have declared themselves president, have tested the limits of the unity of Afghan forces, already drained by a bloody fight with the Taliban. Some officials fear cracks are emerging in the force, which has cost the U.S. alone about $90 billion to build.
“The reduction will not only affect the civilian aid provided by the United States, but it will also affect the Afghan military, which heavily relies on U.S. aid,” said Abdul Qader Qalatwal, another lawmaker. “If they don’t receive the support they need, there can be factions within the army, which may even lead to the division of Afghanistan.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who announced the cuts after last-ditch, failed negotiations between the two rival Afghan leaders, did not provide details on what sectors of aid would be affected. But given the amount, it would necessarily cut into the funding of Afghan forces.
The U.S. provides about $4 billion in security aid every year and roughly $500 million in civilian aid. About 75% of Afghanistan’s public expenditures every year are dependent on international donations.
Gen. Austin Miller, the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, tried to reassure Afghan security leaders about the commitment of the U.S. government.
“We’ll let the politics sort itself out,” Miller said in a video conference call with Afghan security leaders. “We know we’ll work through the political difficulties.”
A senior Afghan official said the failure of the United States to unite the factions around the peace process had raised a telling prospect: Many of Afghanistan’s political factions may already be positioning themselves for new alliances after the American exit, taking their cues from U.S. rivals such as Russia or Iran.
Several senior Afghan officials acknowledged that the political crisis between Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, at a time when the United States had already announced its phased exit from Afghanistan, was only benefiting the Taliban waiting in the wings.
That a disappointed Pompeo flew from Kabul to Qatar and met with the deputy leader of the Taliban reinforced the U.S. focus on not letting the Afghan political crisis derail the exit from the war. The deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, came to meet Pompeo at a Qatari corner of a military base the host country shares with the United States.
Statements from both sides said the troop withdrawal was going ahead as scheduled.