KABUL -- Afghan President Ashraf Ghani says a cut in aid from the United States will not affect "key" areas of daily life in the war-torn country even as it battles to stem the coronavirus outbreak.
The U.S. State Department announced late on March 23 that it was slashing $1 billion in aid to Afghanistan after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to convince Ghani and former Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah to end a feud that has jeopardized a peace deal signed last month.
Ghani said in a televised address on March 24 that he will look to make up the shortfall in a budget that relies on other nations for three-quarters of its funding.
“I can assure you that a reduction in the U.S. aid will not have a direct impact on our key sectors and areas, and we will strive to fill the gap with both austerity measures and alternative sources,” he said.
“It is important for us to preserve the lives of the nation, to maintain prices, to provide services, and to maintain the apparatus of government and republicanism. There will be no impact on people's lives in these areas,’’ he added.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the slashing of aid in a harshly worded statement after making a surprise visit to Kabul to pressure Ghani and Abdullah to come to an agreement.
Pompeo went to Kabul with an urgent message and "spoke directly to the nation’s leaders to impress upon them the need to compromise for the sake of the Afghan people," a State Department statement said.
Ghani and Abdullah blamed each other for failing to resolve the feuding -- both claim to be the country's legitimate president -- which Pompeo said may lead to further cuts in U.S. funding.
Ghani said during his televised address that Abdullah's power-sharing demands were unconstitutional, while Abdullah lamented Pompeo's visit as a missed opportunity for the impoverished nation.
Pompeo said the United States was disappointed in them, adding that their failure has harmed U.S.-Afghan relations and dishonors the Afghan, Americans, and coalition partners who died in the struggle to build a new future for the country, which is already girding itself for the potential impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
Afghanistan has confirmed only 42 cases of the virus, but many fear the number could be considerably higher given the thousands of Afghans who have returned to the country from Iran, the epicenter of the outbreak in the Middle East.
After departing Kabul, Pompeo made a stop in Doha, for a meeting with three top Taliban leaders.
State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said she met with the Taliban's chief negotiator, Mullah Baradar, and two other Taliban leaders.
The meeting in the Qatari capital -- the highest-level ever held between U.S. and Taliban representatives -- was meant to press the Taliban to continue to comply with a peace deal that the militant group signed with Washington on February 29, Ortagus said.
Pompeo was hoping to advance progress on the peace deal, which could lead to the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and an end to the country's 18-year conflict.
Since the signing of the deal with the Taliban, political turmoil has complicated the peace process, which has ground to a halt, with both Ghani and Abdullah arguing they had won the presidency through a contested election in September.
After his talks with the Taliban leaders, Pompeo told reporters that the United States and all countries in the coalition were moving forward with a planned withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
"We have a commitment that has a timeline," he said. "We are moving down that timeline."
The Taliban has not given up its campaign of violence against the Afghan government or gone ahead with promised talks with Kabul.
But Pompeo said that the reduction in violence had been "real" and the Taliban had abided by its promise not to attack U.S. forces.
"They committed to reducing violence; they have largely done that," Pompeo said.
With reporting by AFP and Reuters