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EU, other donors step up with funds to help Afghanistan

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Relatives carry the dead body of a boy who was killed by a mortar shell attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. Mortar shells slammed into different parts of the Afghan capital on Saturday. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
By JAMEY KEATEN Associated Press

GENEVA (AP) — The European Union, the United States and other donors on Tuesday pledged billions in new funds for Afghanistan, hoping to salvage years of work aimed to foster peace and stability in the country and coax along uncertain peace talks between the government and Taliban rebels — at a time when Islamic State extremists have increasingly caused havoc and bloodshed.

A largely virtual pledging conference for Afghanistan, co-hosted by Finland and the United Nations in Geneva, drew representatives from nearly 100 countries and international groups in the first such event in four years. It comes as the COVID-19 crisis has commanded worldwide attention, and its outbreak in Afghanistan has compounded persistent ills like corruption and extremist violence.

Many countries set conditions for their future commitments, mostly on progress toward peace and demands for better governance to foster democracy and root out corruption.

“Donors pledged more than $3 billion for the first year of the upcoming quadrennial, with annual commitments expected to stay at the same level year on year,” said Ville Skinnari, Finland’s minister for development, cooperation and foreign trade.

That $12 billion was a rough estimate extrapolated from the pledges for next year alone, officials said, adding that donors would review their commitments each year. Even at $12 billion, it marked a drop from the more than $15 billion drummed up at the last such conference in Brussels in 2016.

Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Afghanistan’s foreign minister, hailed an “impressive figure” tallied on Tuesday, adding: “It’s more important because it comes at a time when there is hardly any nation that has not been affected by COVID-19 in its economy and revenue.”

“That represents an enormous amount of generosity, when every nation has had its own challenges, that on top of that, it did not forget about our shared responsibility to succeed in Afghanistan,” he said.

Countries like Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, the U.S. and Canada offered hundreds of millions in pledges, which came after speeches from officials like Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who hailed the country’s “ambitious agenda for development and reform.”

“The United Nations stands with the people of Afghanistan on the path toward peace, development and self-reliance,” Guterres said, expressing hope that donor pledges will “translate into real progress and concrete improvements for the people of Afghanistan.”

That was a familiar refrain about Afghanistan, where progress has been underpinned by international support and remains fragile, amid perennial hopes that peace and stability can emerge.

Nearly 20 years after a U.S.-led international coalition toppled the Taliban government that supported al-Qaida, Afghanistan’s woes remain complex and its future uncertain. Violence have increased in recent months, Taliban rebels and the government are currently taking part in peace talks in Doha, Qatar; and the Trump administration recently announced a further drawdown of U.S. forces.

Even as the meeting took place, a roadside bomb exploded in the central Afghan city of Bamyan, killing at least 13 civilians and a traffic police officer, and wounding 45 others, an Afghan official said. No one immediately claimed responsibility. But the IS affiliate has claimed responsibility for the most recent attacks in Afghanistan, including two that killed at least 50 people — mostly students.

While hoping to help along the peace talks, donors pointed to their own commitments — both with forces and funds — over the years, and warned that their continued help would be contingent on efforts by Afghans themselves and no backsliding on progress. Many of the commitments were for a four-year span from 2021 to 2024. others were for just one year.

The EU pledged 1.2 billion euros ($1.43 billion) in assistance to Afghanistan over the next four years, but joined others by making its support conditional on the strife-torn country’s commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights and gender equality.

“Afghanistan’s future trajectory must preserve the democratic and human rights gains since 2001, most notably as regards women’s 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.”
Germany pledged another 430 million euros (about $510 million) per year through 2024, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Doha talks offered a “new and unprecedented opportunity set for peace and prosperity,” but noted that Afghanistan faced challenges “such as the pandemic from Wuhan, and unacceptably high levels of violence,” alluding to the COVID-19 outbreak that began in China.

“I want to be clear that the choices made in peace negotiations will affect the size and scope of future international support and assistance. The United States looks forward to reviewing progress in the areas I mentioned in one year’s time,” Pompeo said.

U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs David Hale added that Washington would pledge $600 million for Afghanistan in 2021, but only half would come now “with the remaining $300 million available as we review progress in the peace process.”

Hale cited “significant progress in negotiations” in Doha on Tuesday including “a tentative agreement on rules and procedures that should allow the negotiators to move ahead to start setting an agenda.” But he also said the U.S. was monitoring “disturbing reports” about unspecified “efforts to delay, disrupt and for the progress for which the negotiating teams have worked so hard.”

Hale’s comments signaled the first sign of progress since the two sides in the Afghan talks sat down in Doha on Sept. 12. The government team was likely to demand the first item on an agenda be a cease-fire — a prospect that the Taliban have until now refused to accept.

Atmar, the Afghan foreign minister, said the two sides had reached agreement on 20 points — but one on the “legal basis for the negotiations” remained unresolved. He expressed hopes that if the logjam is resolved in coming days, it would mark a “huge step” in the peace process.

Deborah Lyons, the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy for Afghanistan, said the country was facing “a time of unprecedented opportunity but also deep uncertainty and rising anxiety,” and said Afghans were committed to preserving the gains of recent years, but needed ongoing support from abroad.

“Now is not the time to walk away,” said Lyons. In the past, she has said that despite some progress, Afghanistan remains one of the worst places in the world to be a woman or a child. She has criticized a sharp rise in casualties in fighting, both from Taliban assaults and U.S. and Afghan bombing raids.

Statistics in Afghanistan are still grim after decades of help. The poverty level during the COVID-19 pandemic has shot up to 70% — up from 54% last year. Despite billions of dollars that have poured into the country in the last two decades, more than half the population lives on $1.14 a day. A U.S. watchdog has said over $19 billion of U.S. money alone had been lost to abuse, fraud and waste.

Ghani touted a strategic plan for Afghanistan, acknowledged “lessons learned” from abroad, pointed to the development of a robust civil society and free press, among other gains.

“A new Afghanistan has emerged over the past two decades, and with it, an entirely new set of expectations from our citizens,” Ghani said by video. “The main theme of our development agenda is to meet these new expectations by doing much more with much less in the face of daunting challenges.”
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Kathy Gannon in Islamabad, Pakistan, Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Lorne Cook in Brussels, contributed to this report.