Afghanistan aid to be cut amid pandemic

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Afghanistan is facing funding cuts and tighter restrictions on aid after an international donor conference this week, marking further challenges for a nation torn by two decades of war and now ravaged by COVID-19.

Ministers from about 70 countries and officials of humanitarian organisations, will participate in the virtual conference being hosted in Geneva on Monday and Tuesday.

Although Afghanistan's fragile economy depends heavily on foreign aid, Kabul will see cuts in donations, and donors will introduce stringent political and human rights conditions on the money, five participants told Reuters.

The strategy aims to protect the peace talks and prod the Afghan government to improve allocation, they said.

Afghanistan's economy is set to contract by at least 5.5 per cent this year because of COVID-19 impacts, according to the World Bank.

Donors at the last conference, in Brussels in 2016, pledged $15.2 billion for 2017 to 2020, or $3.8 billion a year.

That could be cut by 15 per cent to 20 per cent, said a senior Western diplomat participating in the conference. "This is the best countries can offer amid the domestic challenge of managing a pandemic."

US President Donald Trump will cut US forces in Afghanistan to 2,500 from 4,500 by mid-January, the Pentagon said last week, seeking to wind down America's longest war. The drawdown of foreign forces - Britain plans to follow the US lead - could mean greater influence for the Taliban.

This makes donors uneasy over whether the hardline Islamists will try to roll back progress on human rights and girls' education.

Peace talks in the Qatari capital Doha have stalled and the Taliban refuses to call a ceasefire. Its attacks have sometimes prompted US airstrikes to protect urban areas.

But senior diplomats told Reuters that a breakthrough was expected in the peace talks after the donor conference.

At the Geneva meeting, the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will present a peace and development framework meant to allocate funds to key projects, safeguard millions of jobs and protect democratic institutions.

The Taliban is not invited to the conference but the militants have urged donors to continue their humanitarian assistance while accusing Ghani's government of pocketing the aid money.

"We request the international community and organisations to deliver aid, collected in the name of the people, to the people," the Islamist group said in a statement".