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Afghanistan: Donors Wait, Need Political Stability Before Opening Pocketbooks

Development experts, representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and potential donors ended a three-day conference in Islamabad last night entitled "Preparing for Afghanistan's Reconstruction." The gathering was the second in a series of planned meetings which will culminate in a major donors' conference scheduled for January in Tokyo.

Islamabad, 30 November 2001 (RFE/RL) --"For how long, sons and daughters of Afghanistan? For how long? The light of awareness has brightened the world, but how long must you sleep? For how long? The winds of autumn are blowing in your garden, but how long do you walk in the desert? For how long? It is the day of hard work and learning from the past and you are asleep as in the darkness of the night. For how long?"

That was the poetic lament, recited by 12-year-old Mujda -- an Afghan refugee -- that began Afghan reconstruction talks on 27 November in Islamabad. The words of the poem suggest sadness and hopelessness.

But what was most apparent at the three-day gathering was the air of optimism that prevailed. Representatives of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Asian Development Bank, and the World Bank said the Islamabad talks had given them the invaluable chance to listen to their Afghan colleagues and enlist their help in drafting a common recovery plan.

UNDP head Mark Malloch Brown, who was named earlier in November by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to head the initial post-war Afghan recovery effort, noted that 17,000 Afghans already currently work for NGOs and foreign aid agencies focused on Afghan aid, both inside and outside the country.

He said these aid workers and experts -- about 70 of whom attended the Islamabad conference -- offer vast experience and have the potential to form the backbone of a new Afghan civil society.

Malloch Brown said a further reason for optimism is that for the first time in its modern history, Afghanistan could benefit from a unique synergy: all of Afghanistan's neighbors now want it to be stable, since this will serve their interests: "Fixing the hole in the middle, the hole in the heart that's been Afghanistan, allows extraordinary regional opportunities, not just for Afghanistan, but for the growth of the whole region, economically."

To complement the equation, the rich nations of the West are keen to provide aid and mediation to prevent future conflicts and terrorism.

"Now is the moment when many members of the coalition [against terrorism] -- in the closing stages, perhaps, of the military phase of this -- recognize that it would be a morally very incomplete operation if it was not followed by as significant an investment of political will and resources in the reconstruction of the country as went into the military campaign. For those who saw the campaign against the Taliban government and Al-Qaeda as an effort to root out terrorism, that would be a very ephemeral and temporary job if Afghanistan was left as a failed state."

As all participants have said, however, whether the recovery process can get underway in Afghanistan will very much depend on the outcome of political talks, including the current meeting near Bonn, Germany, among Afghan faction leaders, which is being mediated by UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi.

Malloch Brown emphasized this point, saying that potential donors will not open their pocketbooks unless they are confident the Afghans can put in place an interim government that will assure some degree of safety and stability: "I see our recovery and reconstruction efforts as depending indispensably on the success of Lakhdar Brahimi and the building of a broad-based government. Without a broad-based government, there will not be donor support for recovery and reconstruction. It's the great mega-conditionality. Donor support is contingent on believing that there is a stable government that represents all Afghans and a government that will go through a process of expansion, of a Loya Jirga, or a new constitution, of elections, of a process that is sustainable in the long term, and I think that is absolutely critical."

This week's Islamabad conference comes on the heels of an initial Afghan reconstruction meeting held in Washington 10 days ago. Next week, countries which have been traditional donors to Afghanistan -- known as the Afghan Support Group -- will meet for talks in Berlin. The week after that, the European Union will chair a conference in Brussels on the issue.

By late January, it is hoped that the series of gatherings will have formulated an initial set of priorities for Afghanistan's recovery, as well as put a price tag on the operation, which nations convening for a donors' conference due in late January in Tokyo will be asked to pay.