UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has announced more than $1 billion in aid for Afghanistan at an international donors conference in Geneva after he appealed for "a lifeline" to the war-torn and drought-stricken country.
"This conference has fully met my expectations in relation to the solidarity with the people in Afghanistan," Guterres told high-ranking representatives from some 40 countries who gathered in the Swiss city on September 13.
The United Nations had estimated going into the conference that more than $600 million was needed by the end of the year to help Afghanistan stave off a looming humanitarian crisis as the country transitions to a Taliban-led government.
"After decades of war, suffering, and insecurity, they face perhaps their most perilous hour," Guterres said of the Afghan people, warning that they faced the collapse of basic services and their "entire country -- all at once."
Afghanistan faced drought, displacement, and a humanitarian crisis even before the Taliban toppled the Western-backed government in Kabul in mid-August, with half the population dependent on aid, according to the United Nations.
Many countries had expressed a readiness to provide humanitarian aid, but also hesitancy to give hundreds of millions of dollars to the Taliban, which has crushed international hopes for an inclusive government by naming an all-male and nearly complete ethnic Pashtun team of ministers dominated by hard-line, veteran militants.
The development has raised fears that the fundamentalist group will return to the strict interpretation of Islamic law that it employed from 1996-2001 before being toppled by a U.S.-led invasion following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. The Taliban had been accused of harboring Al-Qaeda militants behind the attacks.
Despite the concerns, UN chief Guterres said that "it is impossible to provide humanitarian assistance inside Afghanistan without engaging with the de facto authorities," adding that "it is very important to engage with the Taliban at the present moment."
Washington, which formally ended its 20-year war in Afghanistan on August 31 with the Taliban in control in Kabul, demanded written guarantees from the militant group in return for humanitarian aid.
"Words are not good enough. We must see action," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said during the donors conference, during which Washington pledged nearly $64 million in aid.
The Geneva gathering opened after the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned that Afghanistan was in a "new and perilous phase" with many women and members of ethnic groups and religious communities deeply concerned for their rights."
"Importantly, and in contradiction to assurances that the Taliban would uphold women's rights, over the past three weeks, women have instead been progressively excluded from the public sphere," she told the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Bachelet expressed dismay at the “lack of inclusivity” of the Taliban government, which she noted includes “no women and few non-Pashtuns," while pointing to other broken pledges by the hard-line Islamist group.
She cited "credible allegations of reprisal killings" of former members of the national security forces, and cited arbitrary detentions of people who worked for previous administrations, including some who were later "found dead."
She also decried allegations of house-to-house searches for former officials, raids on offices of civil society groups, as well as "increasing violence against protesters and journalists.”
However, several speakers at the donors conference said countries had a "moral obligation" to keep helping Afghans after foreign aid was abruptly halted with the Western withdrawal and Taliban takeover.
"It's now a race against time and the snow to deliver life-saving assistance to the Afghan people who need it most," World Food Program (WFP) deputy regional director Anthea Webb said.
"We are quite literally begging and borrowing to avoid food stocks running out."
UN agencies have said that humanitarian aid would maintain medical services, water supply, and sanitation facilities.
Heading into the conference it was estimated that a third of the $606 million being sought would be used by the United Nations, which found that 93 percent of the 1,600 Afghans it surveyed in August and September were not consuming sufficient foods, mostly because they could not get access to cash to pay for it.
The financing would also provide for measures to support women and children and set up education projects. It could also be used to fund emergency shelters for an estimated 3.5 million people who are internally displaced.
Guterres last week called on the international community to inject cash into Afghanistan to avoid an economic meltdown that would play into the hands of terrorist groups.
The UN chief’s remarks came after UN special envoy on Afghanistan Deborah Lyons warned that freezing Afghan assets to keep them out of Taliban hands would inevitably spark economic problems.
Much of the Afghan central bank's $10 billion in assets parked overseas have been frozen since the Taliban came to power last month.
Also on September 13, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi arrived in Kabul to assess the country’s acute humanitarian needs and the situation of 3.5 million displaced Afghans,” including over 500,000 who have been displaced this year alone.
The visit came a day after Grandi warned that a "resurgence of fighting, human rights violations or the collapse of the economy and basic social services" could lead many more Afghans to flee abroad.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to appear before the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee later on September 13, and the next day he will testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as lawmakers promised "aggressive investigations" into the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan.