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Nations offer Afghanistan aid, demand accountability

Afghans sought help for its $50 billion five-year plan as donors met in Paris June 12.

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"This is not a pure donors' conference," says a top European official requesting anonymity. "We want an objective, matter-of-fact analysis of the situation on the ground…we will support, but we want to talk about challenges, deficiencies, and our own failures, as well as those by the Afghan government."

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To be sure, Afghan aid has brought serious improvements, say Afghans contacted for this report. New roads, currency, and schools are a few examples. The 300-mile drive from Kabul to Kandahar used to take 18 hours; today it takes six. Afghans have stopped using the Pakistani and Iranian rupees and now trust the local Afghan currency. Three universities now operate, in Kabul, Khost, and Kandahar; girls go to schools in the south.

Karzai pointed out the scale of change since the fall of 2001: 1 radio station and 1 TV station have given way to 70 radio and 15 TV stations; 30 percent of the six million students are girls.

Still, as Eide points out, Kabul has no reliable electricity. Crises and solvable problems that villagers bitterly complain about to NATO contingents are often not reported or recognized. Poppy remains a huge cash crop.

Perhaps a main concern among ordinary Afghans is that the giant-sounding sums of aid pledges won't reach them – and will instead be siphoned off in Kabul or by NGOs. The state is still deeply riven by ethnic and tribal rivalry.

"A town hears about a $1 million bridge project," says Javed Hamim, an editor of a Kabul Pashtun news service. "By the time it is built, maybe $100,000 gets to the local economy."

Accountability works both ways

Sen. Joseph Biden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argued this week that accountability works both ways. Foreign aid to a state riddled by Soviet and then tribal wars, and whose conditions were called "medieval" prior to the NATO action in 2001, has never been as robust as promised. He accused the White House of "re-committing the same pot of already-pledged money again in Paris."

"Six and a half years after the ouster of the Taliban, it's hard to believe that our development efforts fall so far short of the Marshall Plan promised by President Bush," Senator Biden said.

While $25 billion in nonmilitary aid has been proffered to Kabul over the past seven years, about $15 billion has been dispersed. Of this, as much as 30 or 40 percent was recouped by foreign corporations and salaries.

US director of foreign aid Henrietta Fore told reporters in Paris that much aid remains in the pipeline simply because the bidding process was so slow, and that aid was often not ready to be received. After Paris, however, Ms. Fore said more aid will "flow directly" through the government. "There's a sense that aid should be coming through the Afghan government, and as many ministries as possible," she said.

William Wood, US ambassador, told reporters US funds will be prioritized on energy, agriculture, and 2009 elections.

First lady Bush, in requesting to Congress some $10.2 billion in US funding over two years, speak of meeting with Afghan women at the White House recently. Their report "weighs heavily on my mind," Ms. Bush said, since many females "live in fear of a return of the Taliban," and they told her "we must take advantage of this time."

Aid pledges for Afghanistan

Nations and international organizations are offering to help fund Afghanistan's $50 billion five-year plan, including:

Australia: A$250 million ($234.3 million) over 3 years

Britain: About £600 million ($1.2 billion) to 2013*

France: ¤107 million ($165 million) to 2010

Germany: ¤420 million ($648 million) for 2008-10

Japan: $550 million*

U.S.: $10.2 billion over 2 years

Asian Development Bank: $1.3 billion over 5 years

World Bank: $1.1 billion over 5 years

*Amount announced before conference.

SOURCE: Reuters