King Philippe of Belgium (R) meets with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Oct. 5, 2016, in Brussels. World powers pledged billions of dollars for war-ravaged Afghanistan until 2020. / AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYSJOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

Western governments and other donors prepared to pledge more than $15 billion in aid to Afghanistan at a conference in Brussels on Wednesday, saying the struggling, insurgency-plagued nation deserves more economic support but stressing that its leaders must focus on ending the 15-year war with Taliban insurgents.

“The Taliban and their allies cannot wait us out,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry told the delegates, adding that the war with the insurgents cannot be won on the battlefield. “We will not abandon our Afghan friends,” he declared.

Kerry pointed to a recent peace deal between Afghan officials and fugitive militant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, calling it a path to an “honorable” peace. “I think the message from every person here would be to the Taliban, take note,” Kerry said.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, struck a mixed note of commitment and caution. He said the European Union, which co-hosted the meeting, would provide about 1.3 billion euros ($1.46 billion) per year through 2020. “Without our vigilance and support, Afghanistan could easily slide backward” as it grapples with violent extremism, political factionalism and poverty, he said.

But Tusk added that while foreign financial aid is welcome, “far more important is to support the efforts of those pushing for peace.”

Demonstrators from Afghanistan's Hazara minority rally for the community's rights, outside the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan, Oct. 5, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

In Afghanistan on Wednesday, the Taliban kept up a third consecutive day of attacks on targets across the country, reinforcing its defiance of both the Hekmatyar peace deal and the donor conference, which it has denounced as a gathering of “occupiers.”

Insurgent forces continued to advance in southern Helmand province, where they took over the capital of Khanshin District on Tuesday and battled Afghan forces near the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

After a two-day battle in the northern city of Kunduz, Taliban forces mostly withdrew but set buildings on fire. They also cut off roads in western Farah province and fought armed residents as they tried to enter the capital of eastern Baghlan province.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a lengthy speech at the conference, spoke of his government’s commitments to ending poverty, empowering women, becoming economically self-reliant and enabling an educated new generation to “bring us prosperity and stability.” 

Citing the Taliban attack on Kunduz, he said: “We had predicted a series of attacks designed to overshadow the Brussels conference, but this gathering of leaders . . . cannot and will not be overshadowed. Enemies of freedom can affect the news cycle, but they will not dent our will.”

Ghani also spoke of the peace deal with Hekmatyar, saying it had been negotiated in Kabul and based on the Afghan constitution. “Afghans can make peace. We will make peace,” he said.

The supportive purpose of the Brussels meeting was somewhat undercut by two controversies on the sidelines: a protest outside the conference by hundreds of activists from Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority and complaints about a new agreement between the Kabul government and the European Union in which Ghani agreed to accept the return of all Afghan asylum seekers who do not qualify for protection.

The protesters, representing the “Enlightening” movement founded in Kabul last year, demanded electrification for several poor rural provinces where the bulk of Hazaras live, as well as an end to what they see as discrimination against Hazaras.

Negotiations with the Kabul government over the electrification issue have failed, and the U.N. mission in Kabul has been trying to mediate. In July, terrorists bombed a peaceful protest by the group in Kabul, killing 85.

“Afghanistan is not a safe home country,” read one sign held up by a protester.

The agreement on asylum seekers, which was signed by Ghani and E.U. officials several days ago, surprised many Afghans and raised concerns by human rights groups about the fate of hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have fled to Europe in the past two years, driven by insecurity and lack of jobs. More than 178,000 applied for asylum in the European Union last year.

Under the agreement, which critics suggested was a quid pro quo for promises of new European aid, all Afghans who reach Europe and do not qualify for refugee status will be asked to leave voluntarily. If they do not, the document says, “they will be returned to Afghanistan.” It outlines a detailed plan for sending them back by plane and even suggests setting up a receiving terminal at Kabul airport.

Deporting such people is a top priority for E.U. leaders, who face public backlash against the more than 1 million migrants who entered Europe last year. The agreement does not limit the total number that can be deported to Afghanistan, except for a maximum of 50 per plane in the next six months. But one leaked document this year suggested E.U. countries want to deport up to 80,000 Afghans.

“I want to thank the Afghan government for its courage in agreeing on a way forward to manage migration fairly, Tusk said at the conference. He said the E.U. will support the returns with money and job-creation programs.

Birnbaum reported from Brussels.