Postwar Afghanistan will come with a hefty bill

The reconstruction of Afghanistan over the next several years could cost as much or more than the war to defeat the Taliban and destroy the Al Qaeda.

The 2-1/2 month old war has cost the United States $4 billion so far, estimates Gordon Adams, a national security expert at George Washington University in Washington. It could cost as much as $10 billion before the US has brought home all its troops, planes, and ships.

Now the United Nations and several development agencies are pushing forward with plans to rehabilitate Afghanistan's economy after 20 years of war, conflict, and destruction.

The military and Al Qaeda operation are "just half the task," says Mark Malloch Brown, the administrator of the United Nations Development Program and the man UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last month put in charge of the recovery effort in Afghanistan.

In an interview, Mr. Brown notes that the UN has 18 teams of experts doing research on the costs involved in various economic and social sectors for putting the Afghan Humpty Dumpty back together again.

"We are now doing the serious numbers-crunching," he says. But he suspects the cost will come somewhere in the middle between the $6.5 billion that was spent on the restoration of Mozambique after its civil war and a "high" World Bank estimate of $1 billion per million Afghans, which comes to $20 billion, over five years.

The plan is to come up with an estimate of financial needs and a reconstruction plan before donor nations meet at the end of January in Tokyo. The ministers at that session will pledge funds for Afghanistan.

Mr. Brown calls Afghanistan a "failed state." Such states, he says, become a haven for terrorists and "all kinds of ugliness."

So the world, he argues, has a responsibility to help Afghanistan get into better shape. And he expects the donors to do so, as their rhetoric indicates.

The key donors will be the US, Japan ("a big contributor despite its budget problems"), the European Commission, individual nations in Europe, Saudi Arabia, and perhaps smaller Gulf nations.

In Washington, the State Department and Treasury are "anxious" to see the US involved in reconstruction, says Brown. They also want preliminary funding for the new Afghan government that is scheduled to take over in Kabul on Saturday.

The major development agencies involved will be Brown's own agency, a host of other UN bodies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Asian Development Bank.

The Islamic Development Bank also will likely help.

So will dozens of nongovernmental agencies, many for years working quietly in both pre-Taliban and Taliban Afghanistan.

The development challenge is huge. Even before the conflict period, Afghanistan was "bouncing around the bottom" when nations were ranked according to the UNDP's human development index, notes Brown.

Per capita income amounts to about $150 a year. National gross domestic product is probably 20 percent less than 20 years ago. One-quarter of children die before age 5. Life expectancy is in the low 40s. Most Afghans are illiterate.

"It is, and was, a very poor place," says Brown.

The No. 1 priority for Afghanistan is restoring security - getting a police presence to prevent the violence that preceded the Taliban regime.

When Brown was in Kabul two weeks ago, security was the "overwhelming message" he heard from "kids 7 years old to their parents." The Taliban brought security and "complete repression of personal freedom." Afghans generally want both security and freedom today.

A second priority is reviving education, healthcare, and community institutions. A third goal is to restore the agricultural system. Most Afghans are farmers. Right now, many men find it pays better to carry a Kalashnikov rifle than to use a plow, Brown says.

A fourth goal is conflict-related: collect small arms, remove huge numbers of land mines, demobilize armed groups, and get millions of refugees within and outside Afghanistan to return home.

The IMF plans to strengthen the nation's weak financial system. The value of the Afghani has risen from 80,000 per $1 to 30,000. But temporary use of the dollar or euro may be suggested.

A strategy decision is to push forward these goals with relatively few foreigners in Afghanistan - "a low-cal operation," says Brown. "It is not appropriate for a large number of expatriates to be roaming across the country." The restoration effort should reflect priorities of the Afghans and be run by them, he adds.

Reconstruction won't be easy.

"You don't build a healthy economy in a year, not in five years,": says Mr. Adams. "We will come up short. We are talking about a primitive economy."

But for humanitarian and political reasons, the donor nations and agencies will strive to establish a sustainable economy in Afghanistan.

"It is important and worthy of doing," says Mr. Adams.

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