BELGIUM EU BRUSSELS CONFERENCE ON AFGHANISTAN.jpg
(L-R front) Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani, European Council President Donald Tusk, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, chat as they pose for a group photo at the Brussels conference on Afghanistan in Belgium, 05 October 2016.
Photograph: EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

The international community pledged 15.2 billion dollars for Afghanistan over the next four years at talks in Brussels on Wednesday, falling slightly short of an aim to renew the current level of support for the conflict-ridden country.

Afghanistan remains one of the world's poorest and politically unstable countries, despite several multi-billion-dollar aid packages over the last 15 years. Corruption is rife, while security remains a concern after NATO ended an anti-terrorist combat mission in 2014.

The aim of the conference, hosted by the European Union, was to keep funding for Afghanistan for the next four years on a par with the 4 billion dollars annually pledged in 2012.

Despite falling short of that goal, Wednesday's pledges exceeded even the "most rosy" expectations, said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, noting that there was no sign of donor fatigue.

The aid, which was coupled with promises to support the country politically, is contingent on reforms by the Afghan government in areas such as strengthening democracy and tackling corruption.

The EU and its member states pledged a total of 5.6 billion dollars over the four-year period, Mogherini said. This will make it the largest donor of Afghan development aid, noted European Council President Donald Tusk.

But the EU has been slammed in recent days for a deal struck with Kabul on the return of economic migrants who have no right to stay in the bloc.

Migration is highly sensitive in Europe, following the arrival of more than 1 million people last year. Afghans were the second largest group, behind Syrians. EU member states have rejected almost half of Afghan asylum requests, according to the most recent figures.

Mogherini stressed that there is "no link" between EU funding and Kabul's migration pledges, although Tusk noted that "we do expect ... countries to take back irregular economic migrants" and thanked Afghanistan for its "courage" on the issue.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier - whose country pledged 430 million euros (480 million dollars) annually until 2020 as part of the EU funds - said he expected Kabul's "fair cooperation" on migrant returns, after the two countries signed a bilateral deal.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said the reintegration of Afghans returning home would be one of the country's "key challenges," with 45 million Afghan refugees living outside the country. Many had fled to neighbouring Pakistan and Iran to escape the conflict at home.

But trading migrant refugees for much-needed funding was "sordid and immoral," said Horia Mosadiq of Amnesty International. She accused the EU of a "bullying manoeuvre to wash their hands of their responsibilities to Afghans."

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry pledged that civilian aid for Afghhanistan would remain "at or very near the current levels" until 2020.

"We will not abandon our Afghan friends," he added, noting that next month's US elections would not affect the country's level of commitment.

Kerry called specifically on Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Iran to do their part, noting that they could play a special role, not only economically but also in bringing about peace between Afghanistan and the Taliban insurgency.

The start to the conference on Tuesday was overshadowed by a Taliban offensive on the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that began Monday. On Wednesday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Afghan forces had regained control of the city, but fighting continued into the evening.

"Conflict remains the main obstacle to the prosperous future that the people of Afghanistan deserve," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the Brussels conference.

But Ghani said poverty was the largest challenge, with more than a third of the population living on less than 1.35 dollars a day.

"That means one to two meals a day and low probability of their children ever attending school," he added.

The Brussels conference included officials from 75 countries and 26 international organizations. The last pledging conference was held in Tokyo in 2012.

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