Afghanistan conference to raise cash and set strategy

r11.jpgPARIS (Reuters) – Ministers will pledge funds for Afghanistan and review their development strategy for the fragile Central Asian state at a donors conference which got underway in Paris on Thursday.

More than six years after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban regime that sheltered al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, corruption is rife, the drug trade is thriving and attacks occur daily in Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest nations.

Afghanistan’s government is asking the ministers and other delegates from 67 countries to fund a $50 billion five-year development plan, for which donors will demand that Kabul do more to fight graft which has deterred investment.

“It is the duty of all democrats to help you,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy told his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai in his opening speech, adding that France would “maintain its effort in Afghanistan as long as necessary.”

More than 15 international organizations also took part in the conference opened by Sarkozy, Karzai and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Donors are not expected to pledge a full $50 billion but the conference is intended to be a show of support for Afghanistan after a NATO summit in April examined military strategy for the more than 50,000 foreign troops stationed there.

Last year alone, an insurgency by a rejuvenated Taliban accounted for some 6,000 deaths.

The United States will pledge about $10 billion over around two years, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said as she flew to the Paris meeting. The World Bank’s envoy said it would provide around $1.1 billion over five years and a foreign ministry spokesman said Japan would offer an extra $550 million.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Britain would provide about 600 million pounds ($1.17 billion) in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan through 2012/2013. A U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday he expected total pledges of more than $15 billion.

Sarkozy said France would more than double its aid, focusing on health and agriculture, but did not give any figures.

Aid agencies in Afghanistan say France has spent around $80 million in aid since 2001, with a further $29.5 million pledged but not disbursed.

Envoys are expected to pledge to improve coordination of an aid effort often criticized as chaotic and inefficient. The conference is also expected to reinforce the authority of the U.N.’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Kai Eide.

Afghanistan depends on aid for 90 percent of its spending. But international donors have fallen behind in paying what they have already pledged, and much of the money goes straight back to donor countries in salaries, purchase of goods and profits.

The lag in aid is partly due to concerns about corruption. Of the $25 billion pledged for Afghanistan from 2001 until now, only around $15 billion has been spent, aid agencies say.

“I think there will be much more of a commitment politically now to coordination and to aid effectiveness than we’ve seen ever before,” Eide told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.

“In that way I really think the conference … will be a kind of a new chapter because I believe that that readiness is there much more today than it has been ever since we started our efforts in Afghanistan,” he added.

Eide said he wanted to see more aid going through Afghan channels, supporting the organizers’ stated aim of ‘Afghanistan’ — handing more responsibility to Afghans.

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