U.S. Secretary of State Clinton and Afghan President Karzai hold a joint news conference in Kabul. (Photo: Reuters)
Washington declared Afghanistan a major non-NATO ally on Saturday, a largely symbolic status reinforcing its message to Afghans that they will not be abandoned as the war winds down.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the decision, made by President Barack Obama, during her unannounced visit to Kabul where she met President Hamid Karzai on the eve of a major donors' conference in Tokyo which will draw pledges for aid.
The status upgrade may help Afghanistan acquire U.S. defence supplies and have greater access to U.S. training as the Afghan army takes more responsibility for the country's security ahead of the 2014 withdrawal of most NATO combat troops.
"Please know that the United States will be your friend and your partner. We are not even imagining abandoning Afghanistan. Quite the opposite," Clinton told a press briefing with Karzai before jetting off to Tokyo.
Obama's decision meets a pledge he made on a visit to Afghanistan this year to upgrade Kabul to a special security status given to only a limited number of U.S. partners -- including close allies like Israel and Japan -- which are not members of NATO.
Participants at the Tokyo meeting are expected to commit just under $4 billion annually in development aid for Afghanistan at Sunday's meeting, though the central bank has said the country needs at least $6 billion a year to foster economic growth over the next decade.
This is on top of the $4.1 billion committed annually by NATO and its partners for Afghanistan's security forces, pledged at a Chicago summit in May.
U.S. officials with Clinton declined to say how much aid the United States would pledge, which has significantly reduced aid since the peak year of 2010 when more than $6 billion was given, two thirds from Washington.
Donor Fatigue, War Weariness
Now, donor fatigue and war weariness are taking their toll on how long the global community is willing to support Afghanistan, and there are fears that without financial backing, the country could slip back into chaos when foreign troops withdraw.
U.S. officials acknowledged that the trend lines for donating development aid were heading down.
Major donors and aid organisations have warned that weak political will and graft could prevent funds reaching the right people at a critical time, when fragile gains in health and education could be lost if funding does not continue.
Assuaging those fears, Clinton said: "We are well aware of (corruption) but this is an issue that the government and people of Afghanistan want action on."
For Afghanistan to one day stand on its own two feet, donors hope Sunday's Tokyo conference will win guarantees from Kabul to tackle graft and ensure accountability.
Transparency International ranks Afghanistan as one of the world's most corrupt nations and despite Karzai's recent campaign to tackle graft within government, a high-level corruption case is yet to be prosecuted.
There is also growing fear among ordinary Afghans that the vacuum of cash could lead to greater insecurity.
Comparisons are frequently being drawn to the Soviets' 1989 humiliating defeat after a decade of fighting mujahideen insurgents. When Moscow stopped giving aid a year after the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1992, civil war engulfed the country.
U.S. officials may be reluctant to cite a specific pledge because the sum actually given is ultimately controlled by Congress, which holds the U.S. government's purse strings. Enthusiasm for foreign aid has generally waned in Congress because of massive U.S. budget deficits.