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September 20, 2019

US to withdraw Rs25 bn Afghan funding over corruption

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September 20, 2019

WASHINGTON/KABUL: The United States has cut more than $160m (Rs25 billion) in direct funding for Afghanistan, accusing its government of failing to fight corruption, little over a week before the country's elections.

Washington has long complained of graft by its ally and the harsh measure comes after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani clashed with President Donald Trump over the US leader's deal with the Taliban.

"We stand against those who exploit their positions of power and influence to deprive the Afghan people of the benefits of foreign assistance and a more prosperous future," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Thursday.

Pompeo said the US was suspending work with the Afghan body in charge of monitoring corruption as it is "incapable of being a partner".

"We expect the Afghan government to demonstrate a clear commitment to fight corruption, to serve the Afghan people and to maintain their trust," he said. "Afghan leaders who fail to meet this standard should be held accountable."

Pompeo said the US was taking back $100m committed for a major energy project, saying that Washington would fund it directly rather than sending the money through Afghan authorities. It would also withhold $60m in planned assistance to Afghanistan's procurement authority.

After 18 years of war and more than $800 billion spent in Afghanistan — the biggest chunk on security, including the cost of US forces in the country — this is one of the rare times Washington has withdrawn money from the Afghan government, which is almost entirely dependent on international assistance.

The US will still finish themassive project, Pompeo said, which involves five power substations and a maze of transmission lines in southern Afghanistan.

The decision comes a day after the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass, in a tweet called out the country’s National Procurement Authority (NPA) for not approving the purchase of fuel for thermal electricity. The residents of Kabul have accused the NPA of ignoring people’s need for energy, as large parts of the city have been without power for more than seven hours every day this month. Electricity outages have also inflicted losses on manufacturing companies and emergency health services.

“Hearing reports, the National Procurement Authority won’t authorise fuel purchases for the power plant providing the only electricity in Kabul – even while the US & Resolute Support help Afghan security forces enable repairs to power transmission lines. Could this be true?” Bass said in a tweet on Wednesday.

The power crisis intensified further this week after the Taliban attacked pylons in Northern provinces. About a third of the country has been hit by blackouts.

Meanwhile, a US drone strike intended to hit an Islamic State (IS) hideout in Afghanistan killed at least 30 civilians resting after a day’s labor in the fields, officials said on Thursday. The attack on Wednesday night also injured 40 people after accidentally targeting farmers and laborers who had just finished collecting pine nuts at mountainous Wazir Tangi in eastern Nangarhar province.

“The workers had lit a bonfire and were sitting together when a drone targeted them,” tribal elder Malik Rahat Gul told Reuters by telephone from Wazir Tangi.

Afghanistan’s Defence Ministry and a senior US official in Kabul confirmed the drone strike, but did not share details of civilian casualties. “US forces conducted a drone strike against IS terrorists in Nangarhar,” said Colonel Sonny Leggett, a spokesman for US forces in Afghanistan. “We are aware of allegations of death of non-combatants and are working with local officials to determine the facts.”

About 14,000 US troops are in Afghanistan, training and advising Afghan security forces and conducting counter-insurgency operations against IS and the Taliban movement. Haidar Khan, who owns the pine nut fields, said about 150 workers were there for harvesting, with some were still missing as well as the confirmed dead and injured.

A survivor of the drone strike said about 200 laborers were sleeping in five tents pitched near the farm when the attack happened. “Some of us managed to escape, some were injured but many were killed,” said Juma Gul, a resident of northeastern Kunar province who had traveled along with laborers to harvest and shell pine nuts this week.

Angered by the attack, some residents of Nangarhar province demanded an apology and monetary compensation from the US government. Attaullah Khogyani, a spokesman for the provincial governor said the aerial attack was meant to target IS militants who often use farmlands for training and recruitment purposes, but had hit innocent civilians.

In a separate incident, at least 20 people were killed when a Taliban car bomb flattened a hospital. Thursday’s bloodshed began near dawn, when the Taliban killed at least 20 people and wounded 90 after a car bomb destroyed a hospital in the southern Afghan city of Qalat. Zabul Governor Rahmatullah Yarmal said Thursday morning’s car bomb had targeted a National Directorate of Security building in Qalat and destroyed an adjacent hospital, with two local officials confirming the death toll.

Residents near the blast, which was claimed by the Taliban, said the explosion rattled homes and shattered windows and was followed by gunfire.

"It was horrific," said university student Atif Baloch, who saw women and children being dragged from the scene by rescuers. Panic also spread among residents searching for family at the hospital. "I rushed to the scene and I am looking for them and cannot find them... I don´t know what to do," shopkeeper Muqim Ahmad told AFP, saying his wife and mother were inside the facility at the time of the blast.

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