Thu, 17 Oct 2019

A senior U.S. diplomat explained to lawmakers Thursday that the U.S. cut more than $160 million in aid for Afghanistan to motivate the government to be more accountable to its citizens and to the global community.

"We were trying to ensure that the level of assistance that we were providing ... was structured in a way that encourages the rise of the private sector, and that it elicits better government performance so that the government increasingly has the capacity and the ability to assume all functions of a sovereign state," said Acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the Trump administration's Afghanistan policy.

"At the same time," Wells said, "our investment in Afghanistan reflects the level of investment given global threats."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the withdrawal of the funds before the hearing, accusing the Afghan government of corruption and a lack of transparency.

"We stand against those who exploit their positions of power and influence to deprive the Afghan people of the benefits of foreign assistance and a more prosperous future," Pompeo said.

The U.S. had earmarked $100 million for an energy infrastructure project in the country and another $60 million in planned assistance.

Project still to be finished

Pompeo said the U.S. would still complete the energy project but wouldn't spend the money through Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government, blaming its "inability to transparently manage U.S. government resources."

Karen Freeman of the U.S. Agency for International Development told committee members the cuts came after a careful review of resources devoted to stabilizing Afghanistan.

"In Afghanistan over the last 18 months, we established a new development strategy that focuses on establishing the conditions necessary for peace and self-reliance, and responsibly revised the portfolio based on lessons learned and input from various stakeholders," she said. "So, during the recent embassy-led assistance review, we sought to further consolidate the portfolio while ensuring its ability to manage and provide proper oversight over taxpayer resources."

Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, called for the hearing after President Donald Trump's surprise announcement this month that he was calling off a previously secret plan to have Taliban officials and Ghani come to the Camp David presidential retreat near Washington for talks. Trump said he canceled the talks after continued Taliban attacks in Kabul, including one that killed a U.S. soldier.

"In the last few weeks, we've seen the Afghan reconciliation process go off the rails in spectacular fashion," Engel said in opening remarks. "If reporting is accurate, the president's desire to get the credit and look like a deal-maker got the better of him again, and now months and months of diplomatic efforts seem to be thrown out the window."

Before the hearing, U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad appeared before the committee in a closed-door setting to answer questions about the stalled peace talks and the administration's plans.

Engel had issued a subpoena calling for Khalilzad to testify and said in a statement Wednesday that after days of negotiations with the State Department, the envoy would go before lawmakers for a classified briefing.

"While I would have preferred to hear from Ambassador Khalilzad in an open setting, I'm glad our members will have this long-overdue opportunity to press for answers on the peace plan," Engel said.

Doha talks

Khalilzad held nine rounds of negotiations with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. Just before Trump scuttled the process, the diplomat had announced an "agreement in principle" with the Taliban. That plan called for the U.S. to withdraw 5,000 of its 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, and for the Taliban to renounce ties with al-Qaida and guarantee Afghanistan would not be used for terror attacks against the U.S.

A U.S.-Taliban agreement was meant to lead to direct peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban to seek an end to the war that began in 2001.

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