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Officials Stress Long-Term Commitments As Afghans Open 'New Chapter' --> Afghan President Hamid Karzai in London on 31 January (epa) 31 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Speaking at the start of a two-day London conference devoted to the future of Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has hailed a "new chapter" in his country's history and predicted that efforts will be focused increasingly on improving life for its 30 million inhabitants.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also told delegates from more than 60 countries that the British and U.S. administrations are committed to Afghanistan's long-term health. They announced plans to seek nearly $2 billion in additional aid for Afghanistan in the next year.

Karzai, who emerged as the internationally backed choice to lead a transitional administration in 2001 and was reelected in the country's first-ever direct presidential election in 2004, touted his country's progress. But he noted that it is time for a "new chapter" that is focused more specifically on the needs of Afghans.

"Through developing the institutional capacities of the state, we will enforce the rule of law and ensure the protection of the rights of our people."

"Four years ago, the Bonn Agreement presented us with a formidable set of objectives," said Karzai. "Today, I am pleased that we successfully conclude the Bonn Process and open a new chapter of Afghanistan's rebuilding and partnership with the international community. However, in spite of the achievements, we have a long road ahead and significant challenges to overcome. We have reestablished our institutions of governance and justice. But these need to develop to serve the interests of the Afghan people."

He alluded to decades of destruction and impairment, suggesting that Afghanistan's economic fortunes will take years to reverse.

"Our resurgent economy will need many more years to grow at substantial levels before it can uplift the majority of our people from poverty," Karzai said. "And above all the challenges, terrorism and narcotics represent the gravest of threats. Terrorism no longer rules Afghanistan. But it continues to be a threat to our people's security and welfare."

The Afghan government will present its own list of priorities in a National Development Strategy that it will distribute at the conference, including plans for ensuring security, governing more effectively, and safeguarding citizens' rights.

"Through developing the institutional capacities of the state, we will enforce the rule of law and ensure the protection of the rights of our people," Karzai said. "We will expedite administrative and judicial reforms, remove red tape, create an efficient and transparent administration, and fight corruption and nepotism."

U.S. Aid Pledge

Rice announced that the United States plans to give that country $1.1 billion in additional aid next year.

"In addition to our current commitment of nearly $6 billion, today I am proud to announce that [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush will ask our Congress for $1.1 billion in new assistance to support the people of Afghanistan in the next year," Rice said.

Rice's speech came after British Prime Minister Tony Blair opened the so-called London Conference on the future of Afghanistan. She laid out the importance that the Bush administration assigns to a close "strategic partnership" with Kabul in the years to come.

"With so much progress [in Afghanistan during the last four years], some could be tempted to think that the hard work is done," Rice said. "President Bush and I do not share this view, nor do the American people. The United States is fully devoted to the long-term success of Afghanistan. For us, this is a strategic partnership."

'Tremendous Progress'

In his opening speech, Blair warned of obstacles ahead but stressed positive achievements since the ouster of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001. He said the international community is committed to building a stable and democratic Afghanistan.

A market in Kabul earlier this month (epa)

"Afghanistan faces immense challenges. But let us also remember the tremendous progress that has been made," Blair said. "I don't just mean progress in terms of its economy, where the living standards of the people have risen and the economy has grown. But I also mean the progress in terms of the liberty and freedom that people enjoy in Afghanistan when for so long they were denied it."

The two-day meeting is expected to result in support for a five-year plan setting out goals for economic development, increased security, and success in the battle against corruption and the illegal opium trade in Afghanistan. That document is known as the London Compact. It includes the guiding principles for international troops that will remain in the country while Afghanistan continues to build up its national army and national police force.

"The purpose of the conference today is, of course, to sign the London Compact -- which will pledge us to help Afghanistan in any way that we can for the future," Blair said. "My own country -- over the next three years -- is committed fto some 500 million pounds' worth of help. But we're also not just committing financial assistance, but of course, the forces -- the armed forces of many countries around this table -- are represented in Afghanistan."

Organizers also are seeking increased independence for the Afghan government -- rather than the international community -- to administer to the country's affairs.

UN Encouragement

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told delegates that it is now time for committed action. Annan said Afghans expect a peace dividend and that they deserve it.

Annan called it an "important moment in Afghanistan's difficult journey back from conflict and devastation," adding, "From a nation held hostage by terror and terrorists, Afghanistan today is a nascent democracy."

Meanwhile, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has urged delegates at the London Conference to focus on the development needs of children and mothers.

The U.S.-based nongovernmental group Human Rights Watch also is urging delegates at the London Conference to address serious security problems within Afghanistan's provincial regions. Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL today that security threats are not limited to terrorism. He said Afghan warlords also pose a threat to security and stability by continuing to run their own private militias independently from the central government.

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