Afghan president calls for support but donors likely to cut aid

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani urged the international community to keep supporting Afghanistan on Tuesday even as he acknowledged that donors are likely to cut aid under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ghani’s call came in a virtual address to a global donor conference in Geneva, with Afghanistan beset by violence between the Taliban and government forces, rampant corruption and an imminent withdrawal of US troops.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown us all into a state of global uncertainty,” Ghani said from Kabul.

“We ask our international partners to help us do more with less… Financial resources — aid — will continue to be critical to our growth for the foreseeable future.”

Donor nations meet every four years to pledge aid to Afghanistan, which is almost entirely reliant on foreign assistance despite years of promised reforms and attempts to grow the economy.

The World Bank said in a report earlier this year that Afghanistan’s economy is set to contract by between 5.5 percent and 7.4 percent in 2020 due to the pandemic, exacerbating poverty and leading to a sharp decline in government revenues.

The previous 2016 conference in Brussels raised $15.2 billion (12.8 billion euros), but the 2020 donor conference could see less aid pledged as countries battle to recover from the pandemic.

And the conference aims to secure gains made over the last 19 years by tying new donations to joint political commitments — with consequences if they are not met.

Concerns are high that advances, especially in the area of women’s rights, could be lost as the Taliban unleashes further violence.

– UN ceasefire call –

“Afghans have made remarkable progress in achieving their human rights — particularly those of women, minorities, and children,” said United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as he called for an immediate, unconditional ceasefire.

“These rights must be the foundations for a peaceful future. It is essential that they remain anchored in law and protected in practice.”

The Taliban and the Afghan government have been engaged in peace talks in Qatar since September 12 but no progress has been announced so far.

“Our commitment to negotiations with the Taliban remains firm,” Ghani said. 

But he said violence had “skyrocketed” since a US-Taliban deal in February paved the way for the withdrawal of foreign forces by May 2021.

“Plans to achieve peace did not materialise as imagined. Suffering and killing continues to plague Afghans on a daily basis. It is unbearable,” he said.

– Military to economic shift –

The United States announced last week that another 2,000 US 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.

“The Western donors should see this — that we are shifting from a military strategy to a donor and financial and economic strategy. That’s where the leverage to maintain the gains of the last 19 years will be,” said Finnish ambassador Janne Taalas, who is co-chairing the conference.

Support for Kabul from donor nations sends an important message to the Taliban in peace negotiations, experts say.

“Although the amount pledged is important, what’s more significant is the donors providing their support to Afghanistan,” Nishank Motwani, deputy director at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, told AFP.

The largely virtual Geneva conference also considered tackling corruption, aid effectiveness, safeguarding human rights and reintegrating returning refugees.

UN Refugees chief Filippo Grandi, who recently returned from Afghanistan, said there were up to 300,000 more internally displaced people this year due to conflict, adding to the millions of Afghan IDPs.

Meanwhile up to 40 percent of refugees arriving in Greece from the east were Afghans.

“If violence continues, as we have seen during the weekend, if peace talks fail, there will be no return” of refugees, he told the conference.

by Robin MILLARD with Jay DESHMUKH in Kabul