UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi has urged the international community to continue aiding Afghanistan or risk "disastrous consequences."
Commenting at the start of a two-day donors' conference in Geneva on November 23, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued the appeal after he visited Afghanistan, which is struggling with both violence and corruption, as well as coming to grips with the recent announcement by the United States that it is slashing the number of troops it has in the war-torn nation.
Afghanistan faces likely aid cuts at the donor conference this week amid fragile peace talks and a raging COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating an already-dire humanitarian situation.
Grandi said the future of millions of Afghans depends on the outcome of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban taking place in Qatar and on the world's determination to aid the development of the country.
"Failure on either account would see Afghanistan slide backwards with disastrous consequences, including further displacement possibly on a large scale," Grandi warned in a statement.
Representatives from more than 70 countries and humanitarian officials are attending the virtual pledging conference, which aims to set development objectives and funding for the period from 2021-2024.
The event comes as peace talks in Qatar have stalled, violence continues to surge across Afghanistan, and President Donald Trump reduces U.S. forces in the country by mid-January.
Grandi said the nearly 300,000 Afghans who have been displaced inside the country because of conflict this year remain in "acute need" of humanitarian support.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urged the international community to come up with a framework to help Afghanistan achieve peace.
This could help "guarantee peace and political stability and contain and eliminate the interrelated threats of terrorist networks" to Afghanistan and the region, he said in a video call from Kabul.
Ghani is due to deliver a keynote address at the conference on November 24.
Donor nations meet every four years to pledge aid for the impoverished nation, which remains almost entirely reliant on foreign assistance despite 19 years of promised reforms and attempts to grow the economy.
Foreign donors are also expected to introduce stringent conditions on corruption, human rights, and political reform.
Although Afghanistan is heavily dependent on foreign aid, diplomats told Reuters that Kabul will see cuts in donations at a time the World Bank estimates the Afghan economy will contract by at least 5.5 percent this year because of COVID-19 impacts.
Donors at the last conference, in Brussels in 2016, pledged $15.2 billion for 2017 to 2020, or $3.8 billion a year.
The prospect of the Taliban gaining power in Kabul -- either as part of a peace deal or seizing control following an international troop withdrawal -- also raises concerns that small but significant gains in human rights and girls' education over the past two decades could unravel.
Ross Wilson, the U.S. charge d'affaires in Kabul, said on Twitter that Washington was ready to continue its financial support.
"We join the donor community in supporting Afghanistan as it moves towards self-reliance, building on the achievements and investments of the last nineteen years," Wilson tweeted.
The Geneva conference “is a crucial opportunity to protect gains in human rights that have allowed ordinary Afghans, in particular women and girls, to enjoy greater freedoms and better education and health,” Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement ahead of the gathering.
Nearly 20 years after a U.S.-led international coalition toppled the Taliban, donor fatigue has set in at a time when countries around the world are struggling with their own coronavirus pandemics and economic crises.
“It’s not surprising that during the coronavirus time, and during economic difficulties we have at home and domestic difficulties, development cooperation is not so much in the hearts and minds of the people,” said Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Naavisto, whose country is co-hosting the conference with Afghanistan and the United Nations.
The Taliban is not invited to the conference but the militants have urged donors to continue their humanitarian assistance while accusing the Afghan government of pocketing aid money.