Donors pledge billions to Afghanistan, but with strings attached

Many countries impose restrictions over pledged funds pending on progress in talks between the Taliban and the government, among others.

Afghanistan's Economy Minister Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal attends a press conference closing the 2020 Afghanistan donor conference hosted by the United Nations [Fabrice COFFRINI/AFP]

International donors have pledged billions of dollars in civilian aid for Afghanistan, but many imposed tough conditions pending on progress in peace talks under way between the country’s government and the Taliban.

Dozens of foreign nations, international institutions and the European Union took part at a virtual global conference hosted from the Swiss city of Geneva on Tuesday.

But many, including the United States and Germany, introduced restrictions on future funding and some committed for just the next year – departing from four-year pledges made in the past.

“We’re pleased to pledge today $300m …with the remaining $300m available as we review progress in the peace process,” US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale said in a virtual address to the conference.

The US, which invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to pursue the Taliban, has contributed roughly $800m a year in civilian aid in recent years.

Another top donor, Germany, pledged 430 million euros ($511m) in 2021 and signalled it would keep contributing until 2024 but also stressed that progress towards ending almost 20 years of war was needed.

The Taliban and the Afghan government have been engaged in talks in Qatar’s capital, Doha, since September. The historic discussions quickly became bogged down by disputes on the agenda, the basic framework of discussions and religious interpretations.

But Hale said “significant progress” had recently been made, including a tentative agreement on ground rules that could allow negotiators to proceed to the next stage of forming an agenda.

However, an increased level of violence in the country seems to depict a different reality in terms of progress.

Attacks against Afghan forces and civilians were 50 percent higher in the three months to the end of September when compared to the previous quarter, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said in its quarterly report to the US Congress on November 5.

The watchdog reported 2,561 civilian casualties this quarter, including 876 deaths, up 43 percent from the April to June period.

As the quadrennial donors conference proceeded, two explosions rocked an outdoor market in the central city of Bamiyan, usually considered one of Afghanistan’s safest areas, killing at least 14 people and wounding 45, mostly civilians. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

During the lead-up to the conference, diplomats reckoned Afghanistan could receive 15 to 20 percent less funding than the roughly $15.2bn pledged at the last conference in Brussels in 2016 due to uncertainties over the peace process and difficulties securing commitments from governments financially strapped by the coronavirus pandemic.

Uncertainty over whether the compromises needed for peace might lead to backsliding on human and women’s rights has also made some countries wary about making long-term commitments to an Afghan administration, which needs foreign money to cover about three-quarters of its spending.

The European Union pledged 1.2 billion euros ($1.43bn) over four years on Tuesday but emphasised aid was conditional.

“Afghanistan’s future trajectory must preserve the democratic and human rights gains since 2001, most notably as regards to women and children’s rights,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.

“Any attempt to restore an Islamic emirate would have an impact on our political and financial engagement,” he added, referring to the Taliban’s previous hardline rule between 1996 and 2001.

Conference organisers have said curbing corruption was another wish on the part of countries considering donations. Some such as the United Kingdom announced pledges covering only one year.

The UK said it would pledge $227m in annual civilian and food aid.

France pledged 88 million euros ($104.5m ) and Canada 270 million Canadian dollars ($206.7m).

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies