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World renews aid for Afghanistan with strings attached

The international community on Tuesday pledged another four years of aid for Afghanistan but tied its money to rights being upheld in stuttering peace talks with the Taliban — as fresh deadly blasts underlined the ongoing violence.

At a global donor conference in Geneva, countries began reaffirming their commitment to propping up a country beset by violence between the Taliban and government forces, rampant corruption and an imminent withdrawal of US troops.

As the conference took place, at least 14 people were killed, officials in Afghanistan said, when two blasts ripped through the central city of Bamiyan, home to many members of the mainly Shiite Hazara ethnic minority.

No group immediately claimed the blasts, and the Taliban denied involvement.

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.

Efforts to rebuild Afghanistan began soon after a US-led invasion ousted the hardline Taliban regime from power in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

The conference hosts underlined that the gains made over the last 19 years must be secured, namely democracy, the rule of law and human rights — notably those of women, minorities and children.

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 spite of the fact that we are seeing very strong pledging… this money does not come freely,” she said, summing up the conference so far.

“It comes with conditions that the money will be well-spent and the government will be held accountable.”

The conference was also issuing “a strong call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire”, she added, saying that the donations showed that peace was not only possible but was being actively supported by the global community.

– Eyes on Taliban talks –

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,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said via video-link from Kabul.

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,” Ghani said.

Summing up the mood of the Geneva conference, Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto of co-host Finland said the 66 nations and 32 international organisations involved would strike a conclusion with “strong support” for a “permanent and comprehensive peace”.

The ongoing peace talks in Doha were uppermost in donors’ minds and “respect for democracy, human rights, the rule of law and gender equality are pre-requisite for future cooperation”, Haavisto added.

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

– US forces move –

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.

Liu Jian, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s special envoy on Afghanistan, said foreign troops “should be pulled out in an orderly and responsible manner to avoid leaving an opening for international terrorist groups”.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the peace talks were fragile and violence in the country was “far too high”.

“The NATO mission will continue to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces,” he said.

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 economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

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.