US official warns Congress on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

Removing US troops without a peace deal would be ‘a disaster’, says John Sopko, as new talks set to begin in Moscow.

About 3,500 US troops are currently in Afghanistan, as a May 1 deadline for a complete withdrawal approaches [File: Omar Sobhani/Reuters]

A top United States official working on Afghanistan has warned Congress that a withdrawal of US troops from the country without a peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban would be “a disaster”.

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.

“The Afghan government would probably lose the capability of flying any of its aircraft within a few months and, to be quite blunt, would probably face collapse,” he said.

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.

John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, spoke during a House Oversight Committee panel on Tuesday [File: Charles Dharapak/AP Photo]

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between the Taliban and the administration of former US President Donald Trump, all foreign troops are set to be withdrawn from the country by May 1.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.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has outlined plans for talks between Afghan parties and the Taliban on a transitional government.

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.

“We’re lighting money on fire,” said Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

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.

Source: Al Jazeera