A senior US official working on Afghanistan warned Congress that a withdrawal of US troops from the country without a peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban would be “a disaster.”
John Sopko, the US Department of Defense’s special inspector for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, 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 likely lose the ability to fly any of its aircraft in a matter of months and, to be blunt enough, would likely face a collapse,” he said.
His warning comes days before another round of peace talks unfolds between the Taliban and the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – and just weeks before the May 1 deadline for the withdrawal of US troops from the country.
U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad will be in attendance the conference in Moscow on March 18, when the Taliban announced their intention to send a high-level delegation of 10 people led by the chief negotiator, Mullah Baradar Akhund.
Under an offer from February 2020 concluded between the Taliban and the administration of former US President Donald Trump, all foreign troops should be withdrawn from the country by May 1.
There are currently approximately 3,500 US troops and 10,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan.
“Due to the pre-existing agreement between the Trump administration and the Taliban, [the Biden administration has] to decide whether they will remove the plug on May 1, ”Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch said during Tuesday’s hearing.
“Tell me what to expect if the administration does withdraw the remaining troops,” Lynch asked Sopko.
Sopko said the Taliban attacked Afghan soldiers and police in areas of the country the group wants to control, in order to gain influence in ongoing negotiations with the Afghan government. “This will continue,” he said.
At the same time, corruption within the Afghan government remains a major problem and serves to fuel the Taliban’s claims to political legitimacy, the inspector general said.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has sketched plans for talks between the Afghan parties and the Taliban on a transitional government.
A Taliban spokesman, however, expressed skepticism over the US proposal, saying transitional governments have proven ineffective and the group’s vision for the country revolves around a strong central administration capable of enforcing its definition of ‘an Islamic system of governance.
Muhammad Naim, a spokesperson for the Taliban, told Al Jazeera that the group did not believe that an interim government could cope with the country’s challenges.
“Transitional governments were formed after the US occupation, some transitional, others participatory, but none of them solved the country’s problems,” Naim said.
Sopko’s remarks came during an appearance before a House government oversight subcommittee in which Democrats and Republicans expressed frustration over the long and costly U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. .
“We are lighting the money,” Democratic Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz said.
The United States has spent $ 143 billion on reconstruction in Afghanistan since 2002, including $ 88 billion for training and supporting the Afghan army. The western government in Kabul relies up to 80% of its annual funding on aid from the United States and other countries, Sopko said.
“The Afghan security forces are a long way from achieving self-sufficiency because they cannot maintain their equipment, manage their supply chains or train new soldiers, pilots and police” without external funding, Sopko said.
Last month, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin called for a reduction in violence in Afghanistan and said further progress was needed in the Afghan peace negotiations before Western forces withdrew from the war-torn country.
“Obviously, the violence is too high right now and more progress needs to be made in the Afghan-led negotiations,” Austin said on February 19.