Afghan peace effort inches forward after U.S. threatens to cut $1 billion in aid

Just days after the United States threatened to withdraw $1 billion in aid over a political crisis that risks upending the U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed last month, the Afghan government and the Taliban took steps that could move the two sides closer to beginning formal talks.

The Taliban and the Afghan government on Wednesday agreed to a partial prisoner exchange at the end of the month, and the government announced that it would meet with Taliban representatives in Afghanistan in the coming days for “further discussions.”

“This is a positive development,” U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad posted on Twitter, shortly after the Taliban and the Afghan government released statements announcing the move.

The signs of progress suggest the threat of reduced U.S. aid nudged the Afghan government and the Taliban to move talks forward. Afghanistan relies on about $8.5 billion in foreign aid each year, according to a recent World Bank report that projected the country will remain heavily dependent on international aid for years regardless of changes in the security situation.

The Afghan government said 100 Taliban prisoners would be released “on humanitarian grounds — including health, age and vulnerability to #COVID19 — by March 31 after guarantees by Taliban and the prisoners that they will not reenter the fight.”

Despite the government declaration of further discussions, the Taliban in a statement said its delegation would be traveling to Afghanistan only to properly verify the identities of the prisoners up for release.

The U.S.-Taliban peace deal, signed in Doha, Qatar, last month, stipulated that a prisoner swap of up to 5,000 Taliban fighters and 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces was to occur by March 10, when formal negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government were set to begin.

But the Afghan government quickly came out in opposition to the timeline, and the deadline passed.

The prospect of talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban is complicated by disputed election results that fractured political power in Kabul. Both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah claimed victory and held parallel inaugurations despite weeks of diplomatic efforts to avoid the spectacle.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, the State Department vowed to cut $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan this week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the cut after holding discussions in Kabul with Ghani and Abdullah on a unity government.

Pompeo said in a statement that the “failure” of Afghanistan’s leaders “harmed U.S.-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonors those Afghan, Americans, and Coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country.” He added that the United States is “prepared to reduce by another $1 billion in 2021.”

In public comments aired on Afghan television Thursday, Abdullah called for mediation from local leaders to settle the crisis. He also voiced support for the prisoner exchange and expressed his willingness to settle the dispute over the presidency.

“We are ready for talks and dialogue, and the continuation of crisis is in no one’s interest and we are not in favor of its prolongation,” he said.

A spokesman for Abdullah described his support for the process as “a gesture of goodwill.”

Abdullah also addressed the cut in U.S. aid, describing it as a move that “without doubt will cause the country lots of problems.” He added that the aid cut “by no means can be compensated.”

Ghani had previously pledged that the aid cut “will not have direct impact on our key sectors, and we will make efforts to fill the gap through adopting austerity measures and by finding alternative sources,” according to a statement released by his office.

But analysts have argued that it is not possible for the Afghan government to provide the same levels of services with $1 billion slashed from its budget.

The World Bank report on Afghanistan’s dependence on foreign aid warned that if the international community implemented dramatic cuts in aid, the country could be forced to make “very difficult trade-offs” between security spending and the “delivery of basic government functions.” The report also warned that such cuts would probably imperil public investments aimed at supporting economic growth and reducing poverty.

Despite trillions spent in international aid in Afghanistan, the country remains one of the poorest in the world. The United States alone has spent more than $133 billion on reconstruction, aid programs and the Afghan security forces since 2001.