The international community pledged $3 billion in development support for Afghanistan in 2021, and a total of some $12 billion for four years, but conditioned the funds on upholding human rights in the war-torn country amid faltering peace talks with the Taliban.
The pledges, made at a donor conference co-hosted by Finland in Geneva and attended online by many of the participants, came as twin attacks that killed at least 14 people in central Afghanistan sent a grim reminder of the violence that continues to ravage the country.
Ville Skinnari, Finland's minister for development cooperation and foreign trade, said donors had pledged $3 billion for next year, with annual commitments expected to continue at the same level, adding, "This would amount to $12 billion over until 2024."
The figure represents a drop from $15.2 billion pledged in 2016 at the previous donor conference in Brussels.
A total of 66 nations and 32 international organizations attended the conference voicing "strong support" for a "permanent and comprehensive peace," said co-organizer Finland.
The conference was held amid a complex situation in Afghanistan, 19 years after an international coalition led by the United States toppled the Taliban government that supported Al-Qaeda.
Taliban militants and the Afghan government are currently involved in peace talks in Qatar, and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump recently announced that another 2,000 U.S. troops will exit Afghanistan by January 15 -- less than a week before Joe Biden is set to take over as president -- leaving just 2,500 behind.
Some $600 million out of the total was pledged by the United States for humanitarian aid to civilians next year, half of it conditional on the peace talks with the Taliban.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that choices made in peace talks will affect the size and scope of future international support to Afghanistan, and that Washington would review progress in a year's time.
Trump's decision earlier this month to draw down U.S. troops in Afghanistan "does not signal change in policy," U.S. Under Secretary of State David Hale told the conference, calling for a unified, stable country.
"We stand ready to support Afghanistan and to that end we've made available $600 million for civilian assistance needs in 2021. We're pleased to pledge today $300 million of that money with the remaining $300 million available as we review progress in the peace process," Hale said.
Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Haneef Atmar welcomed the new level of support, noting that it comes as countries are grappling with the coronavirus pandemic. "That represents enormous generosity," Atmar said.
The previous donor conference in Brussels raised $15.2 billion in 2016.
The international community has voiced concerns that advances, especially in the area of women's rights, could be reversed by a resurgent Taliban, rampant corruption, and the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The ongoing peace talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban were uppermost in donors' minds, while "respect for democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and gender equality are prerequisite for future cooperation," Haavisto added.
“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 after the European Union pledged 1.2 billion euros ($1.43 billion) in assistance over the next four years.
"Any attempt to restore an Islamic emirate would have an impact on our political and financial engagement,” he added.
Britain, the Netherlands, and Canada also pledged hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of pledges for Afghanistan as the session got under way.
Deborah Lyons, the UN special envoy for Afghanistan, said the world had come together to express "emphatic support...when Afghanistan begins to turn that critical corner toward peace."
In a report earlier this year, the World Bank said that Afghanistan's economy is set to contract by between 5.5 percent and 7.4 percent in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic that has exacerbated already endemic poverty and led to a sharp decline in government revenues.
The aid pledges came after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres 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, voicing hope that donor pledges will "translate into real progress and concrete improvements for the people of Afghanistan.”
Speaking via video link from Kabul, Ghani told participants that his government's commitment to negotiations with the Taliban "remains firm," but he said violence had "skyrocketed" since a U.S.-Taliban deal in February paved the way for the withdrawal of foreign forces by May 2021.
"Plans to achieve peace did not materialize as imagined. Suffering and killing continues to plague Afghans on a daily basis. It is unbearable," Ghani said, adding that aid "will continue to be critical to our growth for the foreseeable future."
Ghani's words came as at least 14 people were killed and 45 were wounded in the central Afghan town of Bamiyan, home to many members of the mainly Shi'ite Hazara ethnic minority. No group immediately claimed the blasts, and the Taliban denied involvement.
The conference was also issuing "a strong call for an immediate humanitarian cease-fire," Lyons added, saying that the donations showed that peace was not only possible but was being actively supported by the global community.
“Now is not the time to walk away,” Lyons said.