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The U.S. is serious about making peace with the Taliban, but some experts question whether Afghanistan is ready for the U.S. withdrawal that would accompany an accord. As Nick Schifrin reports, Afghanistan currently relies upon American firepower, training and financial support, and it faces risks of renewed violence, government collapse and loss of progressive gains if those resources disappear.
The U.S. is currently negotiating with the Taliban to find an end to the America's longest war, in Afghanistan.
Tonight, the chief U.S. negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, is in Europe, briefing allies and trying to set up a meeting that will include the Taliban and the Afghan government.
But a new U.S. government report out today asks a fundamental question: Is Afghanistan ready for a peace deal and the American withdrawal that would come with it?
Here's Nick Schifrin.
For more than 17 years, American troops have fought, and more 2,400 have died, to bring peace to Afghanistan. For more than 17 years, Afghans have struggled to find stability and transform a nonexistent bureaucracy into a functioning government.
And now that the U.S. is pursuing its most serious ever talks with the Taliban, John Sopko has a warning.
It's important for the policy-makers now to plan now for what we call the day after. Don't wait until then. If you fail to plan, it's a plan to fail.
Sopko is the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, a government-funded watchdog whose job is to criticize government spending. In Washington, he's controversial. He was once dubbed the Donald Trump of inspectors general, and is unabashedly outspoken.
I go back to what, you know, President Truman said. And I will paraphrase it. If you're inspector general and you're doing your job and you want a friend in Washington, go buy a dog.
Today, his office released a report that lays out the risks of any peace deal. Top of the list, widespread insecurity.
For civilians, Afghanistan has never been more dangerous, and 45,000 soldiers and police have been killed since 2014. The U.S. provides indispensable training and firepower, but the goal of the peace talks is to agree with the Taliban on a U.S. withdrawal.
A lot of support for the Afghans over the last few years have been from our advisers, as well as our firepower from military operations. That is essential for maintaining what, in essence, is a stalemate. If that disappears, you run the risk of the country even getting worse.
Risk number two, fragile government finances.
The Afghans cannot afford the government they currently have.
Of the government's $5 billion domestic budget, more than half comes from international donors. Afghanistan's defense budget is $6.5 billion, of which $4.9 billion is paid by U.S. taxpayers.
If there's a deal and we don't continue to support the Afghan government financially, as well as technically, but financially, the government will collapse.
Risk three, reintegrating Taliban fighters. Over the long term, as many as 60,000 insurgents are going to need to hand in their weapons, and will expect jobs, training, and even land.
There is a tendency, we have seen, to think that, miraculously, the problems will disappear once there's peace. If you want sustainable peace, you have to focus on, how do you reintegrate, disarm, and reintegrate those Taliban back into an Afghan society?
Risk number four, protecting Afghanistan's gains. Of 320 Parliament seats, 63 are held by women; 6,000 women are police, soldiers, judges, or attorneys. Nearly 70,000 women are teachers, and tens of thousands of girls are in school, all unthinkable under the Taliban.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who leads the U.S. talks with the Taliban, promises to defend those gains.
We will speak loudly and clearly for the values that we have, the values of human rights, value of freedom of the press, women's rights.
But the Taliban enshrouded and often executed women, and the peace talks have faced bipartisan skepticism. Today's Taliban negotiators promise a more liberal policy toward women.
Sopko isn't sure, and says the risk is not only humanitarian, but also financial.
I have talked to U.S. legislators. I have talked to parliamentarians from other governments. And none of them have expressed an interest in supporting an Afghan government, even if peace is declared, if that Afghan government is going back to taking rights away from women and children.
The final risk? Oversight. The U.S. has spent $130 billion reconstructing Afghanistan. But the government remains one of the world's most corrupt, and any peace deal could limit oversight of financial assistance.
The Afghans don't have, in many cases, the will at the ministerial level or the capability to protect that money. And if that's the way we go, then you might as well just pile up the dollars and burn them in the streets of Kabul. That's how useful it will be to us and to the Afghan people.
Sopko's language is designed to alarm. And while he and so many want Afghanistan to find peace, he warns, peace carries risks that can imperil all the money and all the lives spent for Afghanistan's future.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
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