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Peace could bring new threats to US development in Afghanistan, watchdog says

A U.S. Army UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter crewed by 1st Lt. Chuck Nadd, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Darren Dreher, Staff Sgt. Bruce Kleckner, and Sgt. Jay Herring, all members of Task Force Phoenix, flies a personnel movement mission over Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 4, 2013. (Capt. Peter Smedberg/U.S. Army)

An agreement to end the Afghanistan War could present additional risks to $130-billion worth of U.S. reconstruction efforts in the country, a government watchdog said Thursday, calling on policymakers to plan for a post-peace deal environment.

Eight high-risk areas capable of hampering U.S-funded efforts were detailed in a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which was delivered to Congress and the secretaries of State and Defense.

Since 2014, SIGAR has developed a “high-risk list” for each new Congress outlining the threats to U.S. investment in Afghanistan, such as widespread insecurity, corruption and the illegal drug trade. However, the most recent catalog differs in that it identifies three risks that might persist after a peace settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government or arise out of such a deal.

“Peace would be welcome news,” SIGAR said. “But a peace settlement could also bring its own set of challenges to sustaining what has been achieved since 2001 in one of the world’s most isolated, impoverished, and conflict-plagued countries.”

While officials say much work remains before any accord is reached, both the American and Taliban representatives taking part in the peace talks said progress was made during the latest round of discussions, which included draft terms on the withdrawal of U.S. troops and Taliban assurances on counterterrorism.

Any deal won’t necessarily eliminate all of the concerns on SIGAR’s list, but women’s already fragile rights are one of three areas that the latest report specifically names as a possible casualty of the peace process.

The U.S. has spent more than $1 billion to advance the status of Afghan women since 2002, but SIGAR pointed to concerns women’s rights won’t be protected in the event of a settlement that grants the Taliban some form of political legitimacy. The group’s hard-line Islamist regime brutally oppressed women during its rule from 1996-2001.

Reintegrating anti-government fighters into Afghan society and a continuing sluggish economy are two other challenges that could undermine U.S. reconstruction efforts after Taliban reconciliation with Kabul, SIGAR said.

“While a sustainable peace agreement could bolster (economic) growth prospects, numerous barriers to growth are likely to remain and new challenges may arise as the Afghan economy is confronted with returning refugees and former Taliban fighters and their families,” the report said.

Some 60,000 insurgent fighters “may return to violent and predatory behavior” if the legal economy cannot provide them a “peace dividend,” SIGAR head John Sopko said in prepared remarks about the report he was expected to give Thursday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The $132 billion the U.S. has appropriated for Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2002 has been used to train, equip and pay Afghan security forces, strengthen government institutions, promote the rule of law and stimulate economic development. But whether or not a peace settlement is reached, years of international financial support for the Afghan government will be required to ensure the survival of those efforts, Sopko said.

“Should peace come, if that peace is to be sustainable, it will come at an additional price that only external donors can afford,” Sopko said.

Kabul’s expenses far exceed its means, and the Taliban are not the government’s only foes on the battlefield, where an Islamic State affiliate continues to mount bloody attacks.

“There are over 300,000 Afghans currently serving in the security forces, most of whom are armed,” Sopko said. “If, because of a loss of financial support, their paychecks were to stop coming, this could pose a serious threat to Afghanistan’s stability.”

Sopko called on policymakers to draw on SIGAR’s findings as they chart the future course of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan at a particularly uncertain time. “The American blood and treasure expended over the past 17 years demands a sober assessment of the risks facing the reconstruction effort,” the report said.


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