Karzai: Afghanistan will need $10 billion a year, but that’s a bargain

At an international conference in Bonn, Germany, Afghan President Hamid Karzai unveiled the price tag for keeping Afghanistan stable and out of insurgent hands once NATO departs in 2014.

J. Scott Applewhite,/AP
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, meets with delegates from an Afghan women's civil society during an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, in Bonn, Germany.

Americans and other Westerners experiencing donor fatigue and facing steep budget cuts at home might have groaned upon hearing Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday as he unveiled the price tag for keeping his war-torn country stable and out of insurgent hands.

Speaking to an international conference in Bonn, Germany, about Afghanistan after international forces depart in 2014, Mr. Karzai said his country will require $10 billion a year in outside assistance for at least a decade: to maintain the new army and police forces and to keep the government functioning.

Karzai acknowledged to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other international and regional leaders that the cost might sound high, but like a good salesman, he also pointed out that the price is actually a bargain.

With the international community (primarily the United States) currently spending about $140 billion a year on Afghanistan military operations, a whole decade of assistance following NATO’s departure would cost less than one year of current spending.

“We will need your steadfast support for at least a decade” after 2014, Karzai told the gathering, which included Iran’s foreign minister but not Pakistan’s. That neighboring country, officials and others say, will be crucial in determining Afghanistan’s stability and success in battling a stubborn insurgency.

The Afghan leader reminded international leaders why they had committed so much “blood and treasure” to his country in the first place and why a commitment well into the future was in everyone’s interest.

“Together we have spent blood and treasure in fighting terrorism,” Karzai said. “Your continued solidarity, your commitment and support will be crucial so that we can consolidate our gains and continue to address the challenges that remain.”

The $10 billion in annual assistance that Karzai envisions is less than the nearly $16 billion in aid that the government reports receiving this year. The government offered a sobering fact about current aid, saying that foreign assistance makes up better than 90 percent of public spending.

Pakistan decided to snub the conference in protest of NATO airstrikes on a border outpost late last month that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers. Both Secretary Clinton and President Obama pleaded with their Pakistani counterparts to reverse their boycott of the conference – Mr. Obama on Sunday called President Asif Ali Zardari to offer his condolences over the deaths – but no Pakistani officials joined the Bonn gathering.

“It was unfortunate that they did not participate,” Clinton told a press conference. “I expect that Pakistan will be involved going forward, and we expect them to play a constructive role.”

The attendance of Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi made for a rare occurrence on the global diplomatic circuit – the appearance of an American and an Iranian senior official in the same room at the same time.

The conference took place a decade after another international gathering, also in the former West German capital, which came after the deposing of the Taliban by international forces following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That gathering set up Afghanistan’s interim government.

This week’s conference, which assembled more than 1,000 participants from 100 countries, was once envisaged as a grand affair that would mark Afghanistan’s secure transition to self-governance and stability. But the continuing resilience of the country’s insurgency and the government’s overall weakness, not to mention the no-show by a crucial player like Pakistan, all played a part in paring back on the conference goals.

At one point it was even hoped that representatives of more-moderate factions of the Afghan Taliban might attend as evidence of an up-and-running reconciliation process. But no such process exists, and so no Taliban or other insurgent representatives attended.

Afghan officials did commit to tackling the country’s grave corruption problems in exchange for continued international assistance. US and other aid donors have complained for years that much of the billions in assistance flowing into Afghanistan falls into the hands of corrupt officials and even into the pockets of the forces that the international coalition is fighting.

In one sign that progress against corruption is indeed possible, Clinton announced that the US is freeing up more than $650 million in assistance for local community-development projects. The money had been frozen over rampant financial irregularities, but the State Department said a series of reforms to the country’s financial and oversight systems boosted confidence that the money will go where it is intended.

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