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U.S.: International Community Weighs Afghan Reconstruction

The United States hosted an international conference yesterday to consider further assistance for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell says the Afghan people will need massive economic aid to help rebuild their conflict-torn country. The challenge will be to make sure such aid reaches its intended targets.

Washington, 21 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is appealing for quick global action to help feed, clothe, and house the 25 million people of Afghanistan, a country torn by two decades of war and civil strife.

At an international Afghan aid conference in Washington yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said assistance must come swiftly to prevent large-scale suffering. And that, Powell said, is just the beginning. The secretary of state said humanitarian assistance must then be followed by a massive reconstruction effort supported by the international community.

At the opening of the conference, Powell noted that an entire generation of Afghans has never known peace. But he said it is now getting easier for humanitarian assistance to reach those most in need: "The United States and our coalition partners, the United Nations and others -- all of us in the international community -- are moving quickly to provide life-saving humanitarian supplies. Withdrawals of Taliban forces have opened up more and more regions of Afghanistan to international relief efforts."

Yesterday's conference of 21 nations -- sponsored by the U.S. and Japan -- is seen as the first step in what is expected to be a long-term effort to help rebuild Afghanistan. The conference was held even as the United States was bombing Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and suspected terrorist outposts of the Al-Qaeda network. The military action was launched following the 11 September terrorist attacks against the United States, believed to be masterminded by Saudi-born militant Osama bin Laden.

On the nature of the aid, Powell said: "We do not yet know how much money and other forms of rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance will be needed from the international community. The security situation in Afghanistan does not yet allow comprehensive needs assessment, but we are confident that such an evaluation can and should be made soon."

The international community has already pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. The U.S. committed $320 million in assistance to Afghanistan in October.

Powell said he is optimistic about Afghanistan's future: "For the first time in decades, the people of Afghanistan have reason to hope for themselves and for their children. Together we can make that hope tangible and real. That is exactly what rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance is all about."

Joining Powell at yesterday's conference, U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said the U.S. will demonstrate to the world that it not only cares about the plight of the Afghan people but that it knows how to change conditions quickly in a way that will make a difference.

But what must the international community do to ensure the aid has the desired effects?

Ann Florini is an economist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington policy center. She specializes in international financial institutions. She says even the most generous donations will have little impact in Afghanistan unless there is an honest government or a similar institution in place to make sure they are spent properly.

"No, you simply cannot throw money into a place where there is no state, no government, no effective institutions and expect it to do the slightest bit of good unless you want to be giving people handouts for the next several generations," Florini said. "You have to have some kinds of institutions in place on the ground, or you're simply going to be throwing your money away."

UN-sponsored talks are due to begin in Berlin on 26 November to discuss the makeup of a broad-based, post-Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Florini says Afghanistan may not have rich soil, long growing seasons, and natural resources that would give it an obvious advantage in its effort to become self-sustaining. But she says there are other ways a nation can develop a thriving economy: "People are incredibly good at overcoming the boundaries that nature sets, but not if they don't have some kind of effective governance going on. That is usually the bigger constraint on how countries do economically, more so than the natural resources or lack of [them]."

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, whose country was rehabilitated by the Marshall Plan after World War II, represented his country at the conference. He, too, emphasized that political stability is needed in Afghanistan before economic reconstruction can be effective. Fischer said the Balkans, finally at peace following a decade of conflict, would be a good model for a post-Taliban Afghanistan.

(RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully contributed to this report.)