World powers attending EU talks in Brussels have pledged billions of dollars to fund Afghanistan until 2020, amid fresh calls for the revival of a peace process in the war-ravaged country after more than 40 years of conflict.
With the government in Kabul facing a resurgent Taliban 15 years after US forces helped to oust the group from power, more than 70 government representatives met with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani to promise further financial support.
The EU is leading the effort, partly with the aim of slowing Afghan migrant flows into Europe.
As well as funding, the EU focused on getting stalled peace negotiations back on track by bringing together regional players at a dinner on Tuesday night.
“There are series of round-table meetings that are going on,” said Al Jazeera’s Neave Baker, reporting on Wednesday from the summit in the EU capital.
“We’ve heard from key players like Donald Tusk, the president of the EU Council and from Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, who urged the international community to band together to support Afghanistan.”
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini announced that the 28-nation bloc would pledge $1.5bn a year, adding that she expected “similar levels of engagement from our partners”.
“There will not be any donor fatigue on Afghanistan,” she said.
— Federica Mogherini (@FedericaMog) October 5, 2016
Nearly 70 percent of Afghanistan’s annual income is dependent upon international donors, and about 42 percent of those funds goes to defence.
“That gives you an idea about how vital it is for the future of Afghanistan, for the stability of the nation, that the donors dig deep,” said our correspondent.
“Afghanistan is after roughly about $3bn annually for the next four years to help stabilise the country in the near future.”
Yet, total pledges in Brussels looked set to fall short of the $4bn a year for the next four years that the international community promised for Afghanistan at the last such conference in Tokyo in 2012.
The US and the EU currently each provide about a third of all international aid to Afghanistan, with Japan the next largest donor.
For security, NATO nations have already committed, at a summit in Warsaw in July, to maintain troop numbers in Afghanistan and uphold a pledge of $5bn a year to fund local forces until 2020.
In exchange for the aid money pledged in Brussels, donors expect the Kabul government to tackle spiralling corruption and waste, while working on political reform and human rights.
“It is of course a two-way street,” said Al Jazeera’s Baker.
“The international community wants Afghanistan to introduce much-needed social, political and economic reforms to improve the standards of living for Afghan women and bring about electoral reforms as well.”
The US has spent almost $110bn on the reconstruction of Afghanistan 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 the return of an unlimited number of failed Afghan asylum seekers in Europe, which faces its biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
“EU says this deal should not be seen as a condition to the financial support coming out of this meeting,” our correspondent said.
“But one cannot help but feel that not just is Afghanistan being thrown a lifeline here, the EU is of course facing one of the worst refugee crises since the Second World War, and this is going to aid them as well.”
Peace with the Taliban
Mogherini said a dinner of key regional players including China, India and Pakistan on Tuesday night had “found common ground” for the Afghan peace process.
“The European Union will try to facilitate this as much as possible in the coming months,” she said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry at Wednesday’s summit urged the Taliban to follow the example of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and make an “honourable” peace with the Kabul government to end years of violence.
Hekmatyar, the so-called “Butcher of Kabul” who heads the Hezb-i-Islami group and was a key figure in Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, signed a peace deal with Ghani in September.
“This is a model for what might be possible,” Kerry added, urging Russia and Afghanistan’s neighbours to play a role.
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.
The Taliban continue to wage a bitter insurgency almost exactly a decade and a half after the US-led invasion that toppled the group in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, launching a major offensive on the city of Kunduz earlier this week.
With American helicopters providing air support, Afghan forces battled the Taliban in the northern city of Kunduz for the third straight day on Wednesday, following the multipronged attack launched by insurgents earlier this week.
Afghan General Qasim Jungalbagh, the provincial police chief, said Taliban gunmen launched fresh attacks in Kunduz from the south and east early on Wednesday.
He said “clearance operations” had begun inside the city but that heavy clashes continued on the outskirts, “to the south and east of the city”.
Also on Wednesday, the Taliban began forcing people from their homes in an effort to start an exodus from Kunduz, similar to what happened a year ago when half the population of around 300,000 fled the city.
“People are leaving everything behind and fleeing to the nearest place they feel safe,” said Mohammad Yousuf Ayubi, the head of the provincial council.
Since pushing into Kunduz on Monday and briefly hoisting their flag at a main intersection, the Taliban were pushed back, but their fighters remain hunkered down in residential homes, slowing the Afghan counter-offensive.
Jungalbagh said 42 insurgents have been killed and more than 25 others wounded in the battles. Earlier, the Defense Ministry said five Afghan security personnel were killed and 13 others wounded.