Envoys from nearly 70 nations and international bodies vowed Tuesday to maintain the flow of support to Afghanistan, which is still plagued by violence and poverty more than four years after the fall of the Taliban.
Speaking at the start of a conference in London on the future of Afghanistan, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration planned to give the country $1.1 billion in aid in 2007 — a similar figure to what is promised this year.
“The transformation of Afghanistan is remarkable but incomplete,” Rice said. “And it is essential that we all increase our support for the Afghan people.”
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said seeing Afghanistan become a stable democracy “is in the interests of the whole international community.”
The two-day meeting, also attended by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, is expected to produce a five-year blueprint for Afghanistan’s security, economic development and counter-narcotic efforts.
The gathering is a follow-up to the December 2001 conference in Bonn, Germany, that established a political process for Afghanistan after U.S. and allied forces drove out the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden.
Poverty, violence plague country
Billions of dollars of aid have brought new hospitals, clinics and roads to Afghanistan since the Taliban was toppled by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001. School enrollment has soared from 900,000 to 5 million and many of the new students are girls, who had been barred by the hardline Islamic regime from attending classes.
But most Afghans remain mired in poverty, and the country still has some of the highest mortality rates in the world. Many have grown frustrated with the aid effort, complaining that much of the money flowing in from abroad has been wasted.
Security also remains a major problem.
About 1,600 people were killed last year in militant violence, including 91 U.S. troops, making 2005 the deadliest year since 2001. The past four months have seen an unprecedented spate of 20 suicide bombings, raising fears of further bloodshed.
Karzai insisted the higher death toll was “not because things have got worse but because the terrorists have gone and attacked civilians.”
“They cannot afford to attack military targets or hard targets,” he told British Broadcasting Corp. radio in an interview broadcast Tuesday. “They are going after soft targets.”
Karzai said the violence should be addressed “through a more effective campaign against terrorism and also through more effective regional cooperation against terrorism, especially between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
The fighting has left parts of southern and eastern regions off-limits to aid workers, while a series of attacks on schools — including three burned down last week and a principal beheaded earlier this month — have forced many to close.
On Monday, security forces defused two roadside bombs near the U.S. Embassy and arrested a suspected suicide attacker driving a minibus packed with explosives close to a U.S. base. Authorities fear militants opposed to the country’s U.S.-backed government may time high-profile attacks to coincide with the London meeting.
The booming trade in opium and heroin is another major challenge for Karzai’s government. Afghanistan is the source of nearly 90 percent of the world’s opium and heroin and many warn the country is fast becoming a “narco-state.”
In the BBC interview, Karzai said it will likely take 10-15 years to eliminate poppy production in the country. At the conference, he said the international community should help Afghanistan root out narcotics “without causing undue economic hardship.”
The development plan to be unveiled at the conference, called the “Afghanistan Compact,” is likely to set targets for tackling corruption, fighting narcotics, reducing poverty and disbanding illegal militias. A draft obtained by The Associated Press says the goals include tripling the Afghan army to 70,000 troops and cutting the number of people living on less than $1 a day by 3 percent per year.
Donors are expected to announce pledges to help meet those targets. Russian Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak said Monday that Moscow would forgive Afghanistan’s$10 billion in Soviet-era debt, Russian news agencies reported.
Rice said after meeting Karzai on Monday that the conference would also be a chance to “celebrate how much progress Afghanistan has made since the dark days when the Taliban ruled.” She painted a bright picture for the country’s future and promised the United States would remain firmly committed to helping Afghanistan, despite a planned drawdown of U.S. forces there.
“The Afghan people, I’m quite certain, when they have the right tools then they will be able to stand on their own two feet in the international system, and that should be our goal,” she said.
President Bush this month said he plans to cut U.S. troops in Afghanistan from 19,000 to 16,500 over 2006 as the NATO force there expands.
Rice said it would be wrong to interpret that as a sign the United States plans to walk away from Afghanistan. She said Washington had learned a lesson from the chaos that wracked the country after it failed to help Afghanistan rebuild following the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989. Afghanistan quickly became a haven for terrorists.
“We made the mistake once before of leaving Afghanistan and not only did Afghans pay for it, Americans paid for it on Sept. 11,” she said. “We’re not going to make that mistake again.”