John Sopko, the US Department of Defense’s special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction, told a House of Representatives committee on Tuesday that without US military and financial support, the Afghan government in Kabul could face collapse.
His warning comes days before another round of peace talks is set to take place between the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – and only weeks before a May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from the country.
The US’s special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad will attend the conference in Moscow on March 18, while the Taliban said it plans to send a 10-person, high-level delegation led by chief negotiator Mullah Baradar Akhund.
Under a February 2020 deal reached between the Taliban and the administration of former US President Donald Trump, all foreign troops are set to be withdrawn from the country by May 1.
There are currently about 3,500 US troops and 10,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan.
“Because of the pre-existing agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban, [the Biden administration has] to decide whether they pull the plug on May 1,” Representative Stephen Lynch, a Democrat, said during Tuesday’s hearing.
“Tell me what to expect if the administration indeed pulls the remaining troops out,” Lynch asked Sopko.
Sopko said the Taliban has attacked Afghan soldiers and police in regions of the country the group wants to control, in order to gain leverage in ongoing negotiations with the Afghan government. “That will continue,” he said.
At the same time, corruption within the Afghan government remains a huge problem and serves to strengthen Taliban claims to political legitimacy, the inspector general said.
A Taliban spokesman has expressed scepticism over the US proposal, however, saying transitional governments have proven ineffective and that the group’s vision for the country revolved around a strong central administration capable of enforcing its definition of an Islamic system of governance.
Muhammad Naim, a Taliban spokesman, told Al Jazeera that the group did not believe an interim government could deal with the country’s challenges.
“Transitional governments were formed after the American occupation, some of them transitional, others participatory but none of them have solved the country’s problems,” Naim said.
Sopko’s remarks came in an appearance before a House Government Oversight subcommittee during which Democrats and Republicans expressed frustration with the US’s long and costly occupation of Afghanistan.
The US has spent $143bn on reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2002, including $88bn for training and support for the Afghan army. The Western-backed government in Kabul relies for as much as 80 percent of its annual funding on aid from the US and other nations, Sopko said.
“Afghan security forces are nowhere near achieving self-sufficiency, as they cannot maintain their equipment, manage their supply chains or train new soldiers, pilots and policemen” without outside funding, Sopko said.
Last month, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan and said more progress was needed in Afghan peace negotiations before Western forces withdraw from the war-torn country.
“Clearly, the violence is too high right now and more progress needs to be to be made in the Afghan-led negotiations,” Austin said on February 19.
Taliban Violence Remains High in Afghanistan, Says Sopko
“Terrorist groups in Afghanistan like Daesh and al-Qaeda, although reduced, remain in the country,” Sopko said.
The US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, at the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on National Security on Tuesday said that the Taliban have not significantly changed their high levels of violence, or military and political objectives.
“Security remains the most crucial and enduring high-risk area for Afghanistan,” Spoko said, adding that “Terrorist groups in Afghanistan like Daesh and al-Qaeda, although reduced, remain in the country.”
He said that the ongoing peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban raise questions and concerns about whether the fragile gains made by women and girls will be preserved in a future peace agreement.
“Discrimination persists, and possible policy changes by whatever form of government might follow an Afghan peace agreement could undermine women’s gains,” he said.
Spoko also mentioned that the civilian casualties also remain high—the numbers of civilian casualties violently killed and wounded in the last quarter of 2020 were the third highest in the last two years.
He said that Afghanistan remains exceptionally reliant upon foreign assistance, creating both an opportunity for donors to influence events there as foreign troops depart, adding that “and risks to a potential peace if they reduce assistance too much, too fast, or insist on conditions that cannot be achieved by the parties to the conflict.”
He added that the UN Development Programme estimates that poverty in Afghanistan, defined as income of 2,064 afghanis per person per month (around $1 a day), has increased to 68% from its pre-pandemic level of 55%.
“Afghanistan is poor and suffers from illiteracy, inadequate infrastructure, weak governance, and now, heavy impacts from the COVID19 pandemic,” he said.
SIGAR investigations have identified corruption at virtually every level of the Afghan state—from salaries paid by international donors for Afghan soldiers & police who do not exist—to theft of US-military-provided fuel on a massive scale, he said.
“While the Afghan government has repeatedly assured the international community that it has the political will to combat corruption and make needed institutional reforms, it has a mixed record of completing them,” he concluded.