At least 13 Afghan civilians were killed on Saturday in a previously peaceful region in the country's north as President Ashraf Ghani sought to assure international donors gathered in the capital Kabul that Afghanistan is making progress on promised reforms.
Munir Ahmad Farhad, the spokesman for the governor of Balkh province, said the civilians were killed by unidentified gunmen who stopped their vehicles and then shot them dead.
The incident took place as Ghani opened a conference of donors to his country's reconstruction after almost 40 years of war, telling them he has made progress on a range of major challenges including security and corruption.
The Senior Officials Meeting is a gathering of delegates from the international community, including non-government organizations, which support Afghanistan's economic, security and social reconstruction.
Ghani told the meeting his government has accelerated a crackdown on corruption, reformed customs to significantly increase revenue collection and boosted capacity building.
He acknowledged a problem with job creation but said it was a "priority of the national unity government."
He noted he has also sought to bring women into senior government positions, including four ministers and one provincial governor.
The one-day meeting followed a two-day Regional Economic Cooperation Conference on Afghanistan, which brought together officials from more than 30 nations and 40 international organizations. The two meetings have seen intense security measures adopted in the Afghan capital, with road closures and patrols by soldiers, police and paramilitary units.
Afghanistan's economy has been in decline since international military and charities began withdrawing, with most combat troops out by the end of last year, bursting the bubble created by the massive inflow of military and aid cash. The World Bank has predicted 2.5 percent GDP growth this year, after averaging 9 percent a year from 2003 to 2012.
Ghani came to power a year ago promising to bring peace and prosperity, and made pledges at a summit in London in December aimed at reassuring donors he had reform plans that would move the country away from the culture of corruption that prevailed under his predecessor Hamid Karzai. Now Ghani is delivering a progress report on those plans.
In his speech, he laid out seven key reforms: application of the rule of law; reform of the budget process; accelerating the war against corruption; reorganizing the justice system; encouraging growth in the private sector to create jobs; reforming government ministries; and promoting social inclusion "in particular on the protection and advancement of women's rights."
"We recognize that we need to send a sharper, clearer signal to investors that this government is serious about growth," Ghani told the gathering.
Ghani touched on security mainly to praise the efforts of government forces, fighting without international backup as the Taliban-led insurgency has intensified and spread across the country. In an oblique reference to neighboring Pakistan he said that "provided we have a willing partner, peace discussions will have advanced and a serious dialogue to end the killings will be underway" in time for the next donors' summit in Brussels scheduled for next year.
Sartaj Aziz, adviser on national security and foreign affairs to the Pakistani prime minister's office, met with Ghani on Friday, but nothing has been said publicly about their discussion and no joint communique has been issued.
Pakistan had sponsored the first formal face-to-face talks between Ghani's government and the Taliban in early July, but the process has been cancelled indefinitely, following the announcement by Kabul that the Taliban's leader had been dead for more than two years and Ghani's public accusations that Pakistan is behind the insurgency in his country.