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Washington helping Kabul replace departing U.S. contractors: envoy

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is helping to find replacements for American contractors who provide vital services to the Kabul government but must leave Afghanistan under a 2020 agreement, U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said on Tuesday.

“The Afghans … with our help are looking for others to be able to provide that service to them,” Khalilzad told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We’re obviously very sympathetic to them to find alternatives.”

The February 2020 deal reached by the Trump administration with the Taliban required the departures by May 1 of all U.S. troops and non-diplomatic civilian personnel, including U.S. contractors.

U.S. President Joe Biden delayed the pullout while his administration reviewed the agreement and Afghanistan policy.

He decided earlier this month to begin the withdrawal and complete it by Sept. 11, the anniversary of al Qaeda’s 2001 attacks on the United States that triggered the U.S.-led invasion that year.

The departure of thousands of American contractors, especially those serving the Afghan security forces, has raised concerns among some U.S. officials about the ability of the Afghan government and military to sustain critical functions.

U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko told Congress in March that the departure of U.S. defense contractors may be “more devastating” to Afghan forces than the troop withdrawal.

Some of the deepest concerns involve the Afghan air force, for whose U.S.-made Blackhawk helicopters and C-130 cargo planes Pentagon contractors provide 100% of the maintenance.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Chris Reese and Grant McCool)

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