Afghanistan's Collapse Risked If U.S. Pulls Out, Watchdog Warns

(Bloomberg) -- As President Donald Trump tries to wind down America’s 18-year-old troop commitment in Afghanistan, a Pentagon watchdog is warning of the risks in leaving without significant financial pledges and protections for women under a government that would include the Taliban.

From integrating 60,000 Taliban fighters into the Afghan military to countering endemic corruption and the flourishing opium trade, a future government in Kabul may be overwhelmed even if there’s a peace deal backed by the U.S., Afghanistan and the Taliban, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

“Without financial support from international donors, the government of Afghanistan cannot survive,” the inspector general cautioned. And with or without a peace deal, Afghanistan is likely to “continue to grapple with multiple violent-extremist organizations, who threaten Afghanistan and the international community”

The report comes as Zalmay Khalilzad, Trump’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, is at the start of a 16-day trip to Europe, the Middle East and South Asia to negotiate peace. Khalilzad’s efforts already have frayed ties with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, whose government has been shut out of the U.S. talks with the Taliban so far.

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The Taliban, ousted when U.S. troops arrived in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, have refused to speak with Ghani’s government. Khalilzad has said such direct talks must happen eventually.

Negotiations between Khalilzad and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, have centered on a withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban pledges not to allow terrorist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda to operate from the country.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday that he supports the talks with the Taliban “all the while being mindful that we have significant counterterrorism” concerns at stake.

A withdrawal would help deliver on Trump’s campaign pledges to extract the U.S. from military entanglements. Yet after losing more than 2,300 U.S. soldiers and spending more than $900 billion in Afghanistan since 2001, an American withdrawal would risk losing hard-won gains. The U.S. has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Women’s Rights

A peace deal with the Taliban would raise questions about whether the rights of women, guaranteed in the Afghan constitution, would be upheld in light of the group’s history of repression of women when it ruled the country.

“Some experts believe that a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces could lead to the deterioration of political and economic freedoms currently enjoyed by Afghan women,” the report said. “Official Taliban statements involved in the peace negotiations confirm such risks.”

That, in turn, would make international donors less likely to keep funding the government in Kabul.

Corruption also remains a top strategic threat. Failure to combat it, the report warned, would mean U.S. reconstruction programs “at best, will continue to be subverted and, at worst, will fail.”

Without sufficient preparation, conditions on the ground and funding plans, the report concluded, “we may as well set the cash ablaze on the streets of Kabul for all the good it will do.”

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