U.S., other aid cuts could imperil Afghan government -U.S. watchdog

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Further cuts in aid to Afghanistan by the United States and other donors could cause the government to collapse and return the country to chaos similar to the 1990s, a U.S. government watchdog said on Monday.

The warning by John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, came as the United States, Russia and other countries strive to kickstart stalled Afghan peace talks and President Joe Biden faces a May 1 deadline for withdrawing all remaining U.S. troops.

“Eighty percent of Afghanistan’s budget is funded by the U.S. and the (other international) donors,” Sopko said in a Reuters interview. “If, for whatever reason, the donors keep drawing down funding … that could bring the sudden demise of the Afghan government as we know it.”

He warned of “history repeating itself,” referring to the anarchy that convulsed Afghanistan after the Soviet Union ended its 1979-89 occupation and cut its assistance to the Kabul government.

The chaos paved the way for the Taliban’s takeover. The group provided Osama bin Laden with the sanctuary in which al Qaeda planned the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan ended Taliban rule.

International annual development aid to Afghanistan has decreased from a high of $6.7 billion in 2011, hitting $4.2 billion in 2019, according to World Bank data.

Sopko testifies on Tuesday before the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee on his latest report.

The report noted that donors at a November conference pledged at least $3.3 billion in civilian assistance for a year. If their annual commitments remain at that level until 2024, funding would be 15% below 2016 pledges, it said.

The United States, which steadily has been reducing aid for Afghanistan, pledged as much as $600 million for a year, but made half contingent on progress in the peace talks between the Taliban and a delegation that includes government officials.

If the funding disappears, Sopko said the Afghan government would be hard-pressed to fight on and succeed against the Taliban and other extremists in the absence of a peace deal.

If a peace pact is reached, he noted that the World Bank found the country would need a further $5.2 billion in civilian aidthrough 2024 to sustain peace.

“Even the Taliban recognizes they really need foreign support,” he said. “Without it, the government falls.”

Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Idrees Ali; Editing by Cynthia Osterman