BRUSSELS – International donors pledged $15.2 billion dollars on Wednesday to help keep Afghanistan’s beleaguered government afloat for the next four years, despite growing reluctance to pour more money into a corruption-plagued country wracked by conflict.
The promised funds from more than 70 nations taking part fell short of commitments made last time in Tokyo in 2012, but the European Union’s development commissioner, Neven Mimica, said the pledges “surpassed some of our best case scenarios.”
As the donors met, Afghan forces, backed by American helicopters, battled the Taliban in the northern city of Kunduz for the third straight day Wednesday, following a multipronged attack launched by insurgents earlier this week.
Beyond the insurgency, the Afghan government is estimated to only be capable of meeting 20 per cent of its budget, and about 39 per cent of the Afghan population lives on less than $1.35 a day.
But Afghanistan has survived off Western aid and military support for 15 years, since a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban for harbouring Osama bin Laden in 2001. The European Union, co-hosting the donor conference in Brussels, struggled to raise the funds that Kabul so sorely needs, given the increasingly powerful insurgency there and rampant corruption.
In the end, the EU and its 28 member states pledged 5.6 billion dollars in total until 2017, making it the biggest donor.
“It is truly a remarkable day,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told reporters.
But he acknowledged that no money would be forthcoming if the government does not crackdown on corruption and crime, and take the upper-hand against the insurgents.
“The work from the Afghan side begins in earnest tomorrow. A credit line has been extended,” he said. “If we do not muster the political will in the practical ways of dealing with corruption, these pledges will remain pledges.”
But many participants at the conference have heard such rhetoric before, and some were underwhelmed by the promises being made.
“The commitments to fighting corruption are very weak and we are disappointed,” Ikram Afzali, from the anti-corruption civil society group Integrity Watch Afghanistan, told The Associated Press.
He said that some of the anti-corruption plans on the table are “just window-dressing for this conference.”
Other plans are to be drawn up for next year. “We don’t have time,” he said.
Still, despite the delays and setbacks, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that “it’s important today that the international community sends a strong message of support.”
Afghanistan’s leaders “have been making impressive reforms and development plans to change the lives of people that have been suffering too long,” Ban said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that he still has “an enormous sense of confidence about the future.”
“Year by year our shared effort, one of the largest international coalitions ever assembled, and maintained over a sustained period in time, is in fact yielding encouraging dividends,” Kerry told the representatives.
Speaking to reporters as the conference got underway, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini denied reports the bloc is making aid conditional on Afghanistan taking back people who have fled to Europe, saying there is “never a link between our development aid and what we do on migration.”
But there is clear pressure on the authorities in Kabul to do more to stop people fleeing and take back those who leave.
The head of the International Organization for Migration, William Lacy Swing, told the AP that around 6,000 people are flooding back into Afghanistan from Pakistan and Iran every day, and that any increased returns from Europe would put additional pressure on the country’s fragile institutions.
“This is a very vulnerable society with very limited capacity to receive these people, in terms of health facilities, education facilities and training facilities,” Swing said.
“We need to do a lot more to help those who have departed already, to help these people find a new life,” he added.
Afghanistan has been mired in conflict for decades. At the height of the 15-year U.S. and NATO intervention, billions of dollars flowed into the country, creating a false economy with double-digit growth. But the drawdown of troops in 2014 led many aid workers and international agencies to depart or scale back their operations, causing the economy to all but collapse.
Officials estimate up to 50 per cent unemployment. Deteriorating security deters foreign investment in key fields such as mining and infrastructure, and drives the country’s youth onto the migrant trail to Europe in search of opportunities.
Outside EU headquarters in Brussels, hundreds of people from Afghanistan’s Hazara community rallied to denounce discrimination against them.
Lynne O’Donnell in Kabul contributed to this report.