By Kevin Sullivan and Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 1, 2006
LONDON, Jan. 31 -- Diplomats from more than 60 countries began pledging aid and investment for Afghanistan at a conference here Tuesday, as President Hamid Karzai outlined a five-year plan to strengthen democratic institutions and combat terrorism and drug-trafficking in his struggling nation.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that President Bush would ask Congress for $1.1 billion in aid for Afghanistan in next year's budget. U.S. officials declined to detail what that money would be used for, but it is roughly equal to the amount the United States budgeted for Afghanistan reconstruction projects this year.
"The transformation of Afghanistan is remarkable but, of course, still incomplete," Rice said at the opening of the two-day conference. "And it is essential that we all increase our support for the Afghan people."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, hosting the conference, pledged $880 million over the next three years to aid the country, whose transition to democracy remains difficult more than four years after a U.S.-led military campaign drove out the Islamic Taliban militia.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan told the gathering in the ornate hall: "Afghanistan is now a nascent democracy. Yet our optimism is necessarily tempered by the serious challenges the country is facing."
The five-year plan known as the Afghan Compact, which will be signed here, is a blueprint to improve governance, the economy and security in the country, which is still trying to recover from years of devastating conflict that began with the invasion by Soviet forces in 1979.
"It is important in order to demonstrate that where people stand up to terrorism and opt for democracy, we will be on their side," Blair said.
Karzai, addressing the gathering Tuesday, listed his country's successes since the Taliban was routed from power two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. He noted that the country has a constitution and an elected president and parliament. He said that 6 million children are now attending schools in a system that was totally collapsed and that economic output has grown by 85 percent.
But Afghanistan remains a place of staggering illiteracy, with a massive gap between a comfortable elite and millions of poor. A flourishing illegal poppy trade supplies more than 87 percent of the world's opium. Karzai acknowledged that "we have a long road ahead."
"On behalf of the Afghan people, I pledge today that we will be a dependable asset to the security of the region and of the world," Karzai said, adding that "a stable, peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan is not a blessing for the Afghans alone; it is for all of us."
The London conference follows a 2001 gathering in Bonn that outlined a U.N.-supervised transition to democracy, culminating with the seating of an elected parliament this past December. This week's conference focuses on diverse subjects such as judicial reform and improvements in rural irrigation -- the nuts and bolts of developing institutions.
On the drug issue, the compact calls for tougher enforcement and economic alternatives for poppy farmers, who are often tempted into the illegal trade because it pays so much better than traditional crops. The document also says the government will "reinforce the message that producing or trading opiates is both immoral and a violation of Islamic law."
Karzai told delegates that the amount of land in Afghanistan being used for poppy cultivation has decreased by 21 percent in the past year. "We are determined to take further steps to completely eliminate this menace," he said. "We expect the international community to cooperate with us realistically, not only to help us root out narcotics, but to do so without causing undue economic hardship and instability."
The United States has focused its anti-drug campaign in Afghanistan on a program known as "alternative livelihoods," which is designed to give farmers other ways to earn a living. The campaign has included distribution of free wheat seed and fertilizer, as well as the construction of new roads designed to help farmers get their crops to market.
On security, the compact calls for establishment of a "nationally respected, professional, ethnically balanced Afghan National Army" by the end of 2010, with a goal of 70,000 troops. It also calls for establishing national and border police forces with a combined membership of 62,000 officers in the next five years.
More than 200 U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan since the American military invaded in 2001 and toppled the Taliban. About half those deaths occurred last year.
The United States has announced that it intends to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan in the coming months, from about 19,000 to about 16,500, as NATO forces assume a greater role. The NATO alliance, meanwhile, will increase its numbers from the current 9,000 to 15,000. Next summer, an international force led by NATO is due to take control of the country's volatile southern region.
The compact also calls for improvements in roads, airports and access to fresh water. It sets a target for 65 percent of urban households and 25 percent of rural households to have electricity by the end of 2010. It calls for basic health services to be available to 90 percent of the population in the same time frame.
Among ordinary Afghans, there was little awareness Tuesday that the conference was taking place.
Khalilullah, 26, a Kabul resident who, like many Afghans, uses only one name, said he has given up on the idea that increased economic aid to Afghanistan will make his life better. He operates a stand selling fast foods, which are increasingly popular among Kabul residents. He said he makes about $9 a day when business is especially good, and goes home empty-pocketed when it isn't.
"Nothing will change," he said. "I'll still be out here, selling burgers and french fries."
Witte reported from Kabul. Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.