KABUL: International donors pledged $15.2 billion Wednesday to get Afghanistan through the next four years and urged the Taliban to make peace after years of war.
As fresh fighting raged in the strategic northern city of Kunduz, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was at a conference in Brussels seeking aid from officials from 75 countries and more than 20 global organisations.
Despite donor fatigue due to the Syria war, the amount pledged is only slightly less than the four billion dollars a year that the international community promised at the last Afghanistan conference in Tokyo in 2012.
“I want you to know that you do not make this journey alone,” EU International Development Commissioner Neven Mimica said to applause as he closed the conference.
“Now is not the time to reduce our ambition or our investment in the people of Afghanistan. I am therefore delighted to announce that we have pledged together a remarkable, an impressive amount of 15.2 billion US dollars.”
In return for the international money, Afghanistan will make reform pledges on corruption and human rights, and also agree to take back migrants from Europe more quickly.
Afghanistan remains dependent on foreign aid and support from a limited NATO military presence, despite having improved key life indicators including maternal mortality and lifespan.
– ‘Afghans can make peace’ –
Ghani told the conference that Afghanistan was making progress on the economy, corruption and human rights but needed constructive international support to see the changes through.
“Afghans can make peace, we will make peace, we are committed to constructive politics, not destructive politics,” he said.
Fifteen years almost to the day since the start of the US-led operation to topple the Taliban after 9/11, US Secretary of State John Kerry urged the militant group to make an “honourable” peace with Kabul.
He said they should follow the example of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the notorious Afghan warlord and US-designated “global terrorist”, who signed a peace deal with the Afghan government in September.
“This is a model for what might be possible,” Kerry added.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said a dinner of regional players including China, India and Pakistan on Tuesday had “found common ground” for the Afghan peace process, and that the EU “will try to facilitate this as much as possible in the coming months”.
She announced that the 28-nation bloc will pledge 1.2 billion euros ($1.5 billion) a year, adding: “There will not be any donor fatigue on Afghanistan.”
The United States and the EU currently each provide about a third of all international aid to Afghanistan, with Japan the next largest donor.
– Violence still raging –
Afghanistan still needs all the help it can get, with violence continuing every day across the country. Afghan forces battled the Taliban for a third day in Kunduz on Wednesday as food ran short and scores fled the city, witnesses told AFP.
Meanwhile in Kabul a suicide bomber targeted a minibus carrying government officials, wounding four people, a day after a US soldier was killed by a bomb in the east.
For security, NATO nations already committed at a summit in Warsaw in July to maintain troop numbers in Afghanistan at around 13,000 and uphold a pledge of $5 billion a year to fund local forces until 2020.
In exchange for the money in Brussels, donors will expect the Kabul government to promise it will tackle spiralling corruption and waste, while working on political reform and human rights.
The United States has spent around $110 billion on Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2001, more than the cost of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt a devastated Europe after World War II, but with limited results.
On the eve of the conference the EU and Kabul published a controversial deal to speed up Afghanistan’s taking back of migrants from the Europe, which faces its biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
The plan involves possibly building a dedicated terminal for deportees at Kabul airport. EU officials have however denied that aid pledges will depend on Kabul accepting the return of 80,000 asylum-seekers.
Zubaida Akbar of aid group Save the Children said the plan for forcible returns was “extremely concerning” given the violence still wracking Afghanistan.