BRUSSELS World powers raised $15 billion for Afghanistan on Wednesday to fund the country over the next four years, while the European Union said it won support to revive a stalled peace process after almost 40 years of conflict.
With the government in Kabul facing a resurgent Taliban 15 years after U.S. forces helped oust the militants, more than 70 governments in Brussels led by the United States and the European Union promised more financial support for a country that governments see as strategic to global security.
"The war for the future is being fought in Asia. We must stand our ground in Afghanistan," India's deputy foreign minister, M.J. Akbar, told the donor conference, which raised more than the $13 billion the United States initially expected.
"India does not believe in an exit option," he said, echoing a growing recognition that there is no immediate end in sight to the U.S.-led coalition's involvement in Afghanistan.
Despite such largesse, Afghanistan is required to sign up to a host of political, economic and social reforms in return for the money. Most contentious, the European Union wants Kabul to take back its nationals who are not considered refugees, although EU donor money is not linked to such demands.
Several hundred members of Afghanistan's mainly Shi'ite Hazara minority, which has been targeted by Taliban and Islamic State militants, protested outside the conference venue, rejecting a new agreement between the EU and Afghanistan that makes it easier to return Afghans whose asylum requests fail.
"(President) Ashraf Ghani and his government is here for European and other countries' aid in return for accepting a deal to send us back to a war zone," said Ali Reza, holding a banner with the words: "We Will Not Go Back".
European governments, facing increasing opposition from voters to immigration at home, have pressed Afghanistan to accept more repatriations, saying that many parts of the country, including the capital Kabul, are safe.
"I hope that the newly signed repatriation agreement with Afghanistan will be implemented in practice," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters.
The policy has faced sharp criticism from aid groups and others who point to the widening Taliban insurgency across the country and the frequent suicide attacks that hit Kabul.
"NO TALIBAN VICTORY"
In the margins of the conference, the EU focused on getting peace negotiations back on track by bringing together the United States, China, India, and Pakistan at a dinner on Tuesday night.
Federica Mogherini, who coordinates EU foreign policy, said there was an understanding "to work on a common basis for regional political support for the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan."
There have been several attempts in recent years to broker a settlement between the Western-backed government in Kabul and the Taliban, but all have failed. Without the militants at the table, experts say it is hard to envisage a meaningful solution.
Two people briefed on Mogherini's dinner, attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.N Secretary General Ban Ki-moon among others, told Reuters that Chinese and Indian officials were willing to consider peace talks.
But difficulties abound. Pakistan continues to harbour Afghan Taliban, the United States says. India is unconvinced the militants have changed, judging by the way they rule the 10 percent of Afghan territory they control, one official said.
There remain divisions about if, or when, to include Taliban militants. Even if they were invited, it is unclear whether the movement would take part.
"There are several countries that actually can help come together, and I urge Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Iran to think about the special role that they could play in this region... in reaching peace with the Taliban," Kerry told the donor conference.
Hope was briefly raised in 2015 when Taliban officials met the Afghan government in neighbouring Pakistan, but that process was short lived, and the Taliban insist that foreign forces must leave Afghanistan before peace talks can begin.
They are also on the offensive, and battlefield successes have exposed the defensive limits of Afghanistan's NATO-trained armed forces which are supposed to number 350,000 personnel but which have been heavily depleted by casualties and desertion.
Militants briefly reached the centre of the northern city of Kunduz on Monday, and they are testing the defences of two other provincial capitals in the south of the country.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg defended the Afghan forces and said it was only right to fight back. "There is no way the Taliban will engage in a peace process if they believe they can reach victory," he said.
(Writing by Robin Emmott, additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and James Mackenzie in Kabul and Alastair Macdonald and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Ralph Boulton)