Laura Bush urges donors to stand by Afghanistan

First lady makes surprise visit to Kabul ahead of Paris donor conference later this week.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

US first lady Laura Bush made a quick trip to Afghanistan, emphasizing the need for continued attention to the country ahead of an international donors' conference in Paris on June 12.

The Mrs. Bush met with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul Sunday after flying to Bamiyan in central Afghanistan.

Bamiyan, famed for its colossal Buddha statues that were blown up by the Taliban in March 2001, is also the only province in the country headed by a woman governor, Habiba Sarobi. But the province is also emblematic of problems in the aid delivery systems that have come under increasing criticism from aid workers and analysts. The province, one of the most peaceful areas in the country, suffers from economic neglect exacerbated by a difficult mountainous topography.

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"Donors need to keep the needs and requirements of Afghans in mind rather than their own geopolitical and security considerations," says Mudasser Hussain Siddiqui, policy research and advocacy coordinator for Action Aid Afghanistan. Referring to the skewed distribution of aid that benefits provinces with conflict and penalizes the peaceful areas, Mr. Siddiqui referred to Bamiyan as an example.

Siddiqui emphasized that more money needed to be spent in Afghanistan and to be tied to the new Afghanistan National Development Strategy that is expected to be unveiled in Paris this week.

Host country France is hoping to raise $12 billion to $15 billion to help Afghanistan's reconstruction efforts. Approximately $15 billion has already been disbursed by the international community in Afghanistan.

Bush told reporters traveling with her Sunday: "We don't need to be intimidated by them. The international community can't drop Afghanistan now at this very crucial time."

It was important Afghans understood "the rest of the world is with you and that we're not going to leave you right now when the Taliban and Al Qaeda is trying to intimidate you," she said.

Bush visited a police academy in Bamiyan and spoke to around a dozen women police recruits. She later inaugurated a US-funded road-building project and was serenaded by schoolgirls from poor backgrounds.

While the Taliban banned girls from school, the United Nations says there are now more girls in education than there were boys being taught under the ousted Islamist government. "Of course we want more [girls] in school, and I think this is the key to success in Afghanistan," said Bush, a former schoolteacher. Despite progress, still only 35 percent of those in education are girls. "We want that to be 50-50," she said.

Analysts in Afghanistan, however, blame the US, the largest donor, for some of the major problems in aid delivery.

Lorenzo Delesgues, director of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, says that "it is very important for [the US] to increase aid but also its accountability to the government by channeling its aid through the Afghan government."

Mr. Delesgues says that currently 90 percent of the American aid was routed outside the Afghan government budget. Currently, approximately 70 percent of all international aid to Afghanistan is outside the government budget; a factor the Afghan government says has led to waste and erosion of authority, and hampers long- term planning.

Chrissie Hirst, the chief of policy and advocacy in DACAAR, a Danish development nongovernmental organization, says that the Paris donors' conference should focus on sustainable aid. While food aid is forthcoming, she points out donors are less willing to invest in long-term projects that will ensure food security.

• Information from Reuters was used in this report.

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