WASHINGTON >> The State Department cut $100 million in aid for Afghanistan on Thursday as the Trump administration’s chief peace negotiator briefed House lawmakers on the failed efforts to strike a deal with the Taliban and wind down the 18-year war.
The American funding was slated for a hydroelectric project to provide power to the cities of Kandahar and Ghazni in southern and southeastern Afghanistan. The dam project will continue but without the American funds, “given the Afghan government’s inability to transparently manage U.S. government resources,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a written statement.
In comments to reporters, Pompeo seemed to link the cut in aid to Afghanistan’s national elections, which are scheduled for Sept. 28.
“We want free and fair elections,” Pompeo said in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, in a response to a question about the canceled funding. “We’re going to do everything we can to support them, and we need every actor in the region, every leader, every citizen in Afghanistan to work towards that end.”
It was not immediately clear what Pompeo meant in underscoring the election’s importance when asked about the canceled American financial assistance. His written statement cited “identified Afghan government corruption and financial mismanagement” that led to the decision to cut the funding.
“We expect the Afghan government to demonstrate a clear commitment to fight corruption, to serve the Afghan people and to maintain their trust,” Pompeo said in the statement. “Afghan leaders who fail to meet this standard should be held accountable.”
The Afghan Embassy in Washington did not have an immediate response.
The elections were a fault line in peace negotiations that President Donald Trump declared “dead” this month after a bombing in Kabul, the Afghan capital, killed an American soldier and 11 Afghans. At the time, nine rounds of negotiations had left dealmakers on the cusp of an agreement for a limited cease-fire in Afghanistan in exchange for the start of an American military withdrawal.
That deal was supposed to be announced at a meeting between Trump and the Taliban at Camp David, the presidential retreat, several days before the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Those attacks were largely planned and ordered from Afghanistan, where al-Qaida had been given safe haven when the Taliban was in power.
The Camp David invitation surprised and outraged Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress, who demanded more details on the tentative peace deal — and how it fell apart.
In a closed-door hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday morning, the American diplomat who led the negotiations, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, briefed lawmakers for about an hour. It was not clear what he disclosed, or whether his explanation satisfied the panel.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. and the committee’s chairman, initially had issued a subpoena to compel Khalilzad to testify publicly, but ultimately backed off to allow the private briefing that included classified information.
After the briefing, Engel said it was “crystal clear” that the war would end only with a diplomatic settlement, not a military campaign, and said negotiations with the Taliban “seem abhorrent,” but are necessary.
“Believe it or not, there’s some common ground: For starters, the Taliban want our troops out of Afghanistan, and we want our troops home,” Engel said in a public hearing later Thursday.
“If there is another opportunity, even following the president’s disastrous attempts at deal-making, to forge a peace that advances American security interests, we need to consider those options,” Engel said.
That panel heard from Alice Wells, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, who said it was not known if the peace negotiations would resume.
The American negotiations would have cleared a way for the Taliban to deal directly with the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, who is running for reelection in next week’s vote. The Taliban had opposed the election, saying it would prevent the militant group from immediately taking part in any power-sharing government that results from the peace process.
The $100 million for the energy project will be returned to the United States Treasury. Additionally, the Trump administration is holding back $60 million in planned aid to the Afghan government’s National Procurement Authority over concerns about its transparency in accounting and managing its finances.
And starting in January, the United States will no longer fund an Afghan anti-corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee. Pompeo called it “incapable of being a partner in the international effort to build a better future for the Afghan people.”
At the public House hearing, Wells also said the United States is investigating an American drone strike on Wednesday night in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province. American military officials said the strike targeted Islamic State fighters, but residents said it killed 30 civilians.
“If true, it would be very tragic,” Wells told the House hearing, noting that extremists often try to blend in with civilians to avoid being targeted.