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Afghanistan: Hard Cash, Not Soft Promises, Sought At Reconstruction Conference

A conference of countries and organizations that want to help in the reconstruction on Afghanistan began today in the Afghan capital, Kabul, under the auspices of the United Nations. The Afghan interim government hopes that by the end of the meeting tomorrow, delegates will finally say how much they are donating and when and how the money will be spent.

Kabul, 10 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Around 80 delegates representing governments, financial institutions, and private aid organizations are attending a two-day conference in Kabul aimed at turning unconfirmed pledges of money to help rebuild war-torn Afghanistan into hard cash and concrete plans.

Countries represented include the U.S., Britain, Japan, Turkey, France, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Finland, Denmark, and Norway. Organizations attending the conference include the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the United Nations Development Project, and private aid organizations such as Oxfam.

The Afghan interim government and a succession of world leaders say that reviving Afghanistan's economy -- utterly wrecked by 25 years of conflict -- is essential if the country is to have any chance of long-term peace and stability, as well as to stop the drugs trade that provides Europe with most of its heroin.

The conference was opened by Afghan Finance Minister Hidayat Amin Arsala. He said many countries have shown a willingness to help Afghanistan and, at a conference of potential donors in Tokyo two months ago, many promised money.

Arsala said today that Afghanistan does not want fresh pledges of money but instead wants donors to make good on the promises they have already made. He said things are changing quickly in Afghanistan and that there have been many positive developments since the Tokyo conference.

"There is a complete psychological shift in society. There is a movement away from despair towards hope, from the psyche of war to peace, from guns more toward economic activities and the struggle for livelihood. There may be a few skirmishes here and there and a bomb here and there, but nonetheless the direction of Afghanistan is towards peace, towards civility. And the people of Afghanistan have decided that guns will not rule their lives anymore."

Although a new attitude is beginning to prevail among Afghans, Arsala says few concrete steps have been taken in the reconstruction of the country. Homes and roads have not been rebuilt, but the interim government, he says, has drawn up a budget and reconstruction plans, and he hopes these will form the focus of the conference.

The finance minister said that he and interim government leader Hamid Karzai, during trips around the country, have met people who are full of hope.

"People say you have not provided us anything, but you have given us hope. And that by itself is a great thing, I think. And my hope is that with the assistance of the international community, this hope can turn into reality and the lives of the people of Afghanistan will change and will change for good."

Arsala says a key to that happening is international help for the government to meet its budget obligations so that salaries can be paid to government employees -- including teachers, doctors, and those involved in keeping the peace.

Karzai said the essential elements of his government's vision of the future of Afghanistan are good governance, national unity, and the creation of an environment in which the private sector can thrive to build a prosperous Afghanistan. He said Afghans are, by tradition, traders and businessmen who need little encouragement to work hard, but who still need the financial infrastructure to do so. And he said he hopes foreign banks will begin to work in the country to provide business loans.

Karzai said his government wants to revive the business sector without the corruption and kickback systems that operated in the past. He said business laws will be formulated to protect the investors that Afghanistan so badly needs.

Karzai outlined what he wants the international community to do. One of the greatest priorities, he said, is to rebuild the roads necessary for trade and reconstruction. But he said the international community has so far been reluctant to help with rebuilding roads destroyed by war.

"But a vital sector of the reconstruction effort of Afghanistan, an extremely vital sector, which is the reconstruction of highways, the reconstruction of roads, has been neglected. Major reconstruction projects that attract attention, that bring an economic change, that bring a political change, have been left untouched. And when we speak to the donor countries about help in these projects, nobody takes interest."

He said rebuilding roads for trade and transport will lead to jobs and incomes for ordinary Afghans and that this is vital to the country's future.

"If the international community is really serious, if it is really serious in seeing Afghanistan eradicate narcotics completely, in seeing Afghanistan [become] secure and defeat terrorism, in seeing Afghanistan get a national army, it must begin to help Afghanistan embark on construction and reconstruction of major infrastructure arrangements in Afghanistan. And the first in that is roads."

He said his government has seen the problems that massive international aid projects have created in some countries. Karzai said Afghanistan does not want grandiose projects that will take years to yield benefits. He said Afghanistan does need modest but essential projects that can begin quickly, and he appealed to donor countries and organizations to cut through bureaucratic red tape.

He said aid organizations have blamed delays on their own bureaucracies.

"And yet you all, gentlemen and ladies, come and ask us to improve our own bureaucracy. You give us an excuse on your side of the tough bureaucratic system and ask us to ease our own bureaucratic system. We will not remove our 'red tape-ism' unless you remove yours with regard to the reconstruction projects and the arrival of help quickly. We also must understand the time factor. We have only so far given hope to the Afghan people -- no real reconstruction activity."

Karzai said his government has noticed that many aid plans concentrate on Afghanistan's cities. But he said there are only a small number of these. He said the "real Afghanistan" is made up of the villages and the millions who live in them, and that it is these villages that must be focused on.

Karzai also said financing the budget is essential to solidifying peace and stability. But he said Afghanistan can only meet 20 percent of the budget from its own domestic sources and needs international help to put the budget plans into reality and to stabilize the Afghan currency.

Karzai promised that international aid money will not disappear through corruption and will use foreign companies to oversee auditing, financial management, and procurement so that donor money is properly and honestly spent.

The official host of the conference is the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi. He said it is extraordinary that such a conference should be taking place just four months after the overthrow of the Taliban government. He said the international community has shown it is willing to help generously and that it is concerned about the future of Afghanistan. But he said the international community must stay for the long term.

"The international community, I hope, has also learned that the failure to remain constructively engaged in Afghanistan can have dire, global consequences. I am confident that today's meeting will demonstrate that we have learned this lesson in full and that we will stay the course in Afghanistan and resist the temptation to pull out before the job is done."

The Kabul conference is due to finish tomorrow, when a report will be presented on the commitments that participants in the meeting have made.