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Top diplomats at UN meeting offer support for Afghanistan

Afghanistan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani speaks during a panel discussion at the United Nations Office at Geneva, during the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018. (Denis Balibouse/pool photo via AP)

GENEVA (AP) — Top diplomats from Russia, the United States and the European Union united Wednesday in support for the Afghan president’s efforts to stabilize his war-battered nation, saying progress has been made but more is needed, especially in areas of security, anti-corruption and the push to launch peace talks with the Taliban.

The statements came at a U.N.-backed conference in Geneva, where President Ashraf Ghani said he wanted to “specifically recognize the commitment in blood and treasure that the United States has shown since 2001” in Afghanistan.

Ghani called the U.S. its “key ally” and praised the Trump administration’s South Asia policy as a “game changer” for Afghanistan.

The Geneva meeting aims to take stock of the Afghan government’s use of billions of dollars in foreign aid for education, health care, humanitarian support and needs since 2016.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his country hoped for an “end of this fratricidal war” in Afghanistan and cited concerns about the stepped-up militant attacks by the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan.

Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign affairs chief, said the bloc was “ready to do our part as a neutral player.” She welcomed Ghani’s offer of peace talks with the Taliban.

“It is a unique opportunity to break the stalemate and to move the country forward,” she said. “We believe it is time for concrete talks about peace to begin.”

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale urged all to seize the opportunity to move toward peace.

“Today we reaffirm our commitment to the Afghan people,” he said, noting that Ghani’s initiative was among “encouraging signs.”

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he was concerned about the drug trade across the region’s borders and said the “presence of foreign military forces has never brought stability in our region and has historically provided a recruiting ground for extremists.”

“All of us need to facilitate the inter-Afghan dialogue,” he said.

Ghani, who has faced an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency in recent months — the Taliban now hold sway in nearly half of the country — presented his government’s efforts in areas such as security, justice, women’s rights and anti-corruption.

“We have a plan for reform, and we need your support to help implement it,” he told the conference. “Does this mean that we have eliminated corruption? Absolutely not. We want it to happen faster, but meaningful change cannot be rushed.”

“We face multiple challenges on many fronts,” he concluded.

Afghanistan is among the most corrupt countries in the world and last year Transparency International ranked it 177th out of 180 countries ranked. The corruption monitoring agency said the Afghan government’s anti-corruption efforts had been insufficient. The country’s overall score was a dismal 15 out of 100.

The United States has spent nearly $1 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, nearly $800 billion of which was spent on America’s own troops there and also Afghanistan’s National Security Forces. The U.S. has committed roughly $4 billion annually for the next several years toward financing those forces.

Russia has been accused by the U.S. of aiding the Taliban, a militant group that once ruled Afghanistan and that is seen by Moscow as a bulwark against an emerging Islamic State affiliate, which has sought to recruit Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbeks, posing a threat to Central Asian States and creating a source of instability for Russia.

Also, Iran has been charged with sending Afghan Shiites, most of who live as refugees in Iran, to fight in Syria in an Afghan-only brigade known as the Fatimayoun Brigade. Pakistan is routinely accused by both the U.S. and Afghanistan of harboring the Taliban.

On Tuesday, at the start of the conference, the European Union announced 474 million euros ($535 million) in financial aid for Afghanistan.

The European Commission said the new funding would go toward reforms in the public sector, health, justice and migration and displacement issues, with 311 million euros aimed for supporting Afghanistan’s “reform agenda.”

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