The people and villages of troubled Afghanistan will get substantial new aid – up to $16 billion – provided Kabul and President Hamid Karzai agree to greater United Nations oversight and clampdown measures on Afghan corruption and waste, world leaders said here Thursday.
The one-day 70-nation meeting in Paris arose out of deepening concern this spring that the NATO Afghan mission is too important to fail – amid Taliban resurgence – and that billions of dollars for civil and civic structures must actually reach ordinary Afghans and into small villages. It is a "hearts and minds" strategy – that stability depends as much on nation-building as on NATO security.
Yet the word "accountability" hung in the Paris air as much as the word "pledge," as Mr. Karzai's embattled government sought $50 billion over five years. The day opened with a frank UN report on progress since 2006 issued to the press – describing "deteriorating" security, increased opium production, the burning of schools, corruption. The famed "Afghan Compact" shaped in London two years ago "turned out to be overly ambitious due to changing circumstances," it read.
The meeting comes "at a time of serious doubts about Afghanistan… and we have to show determination and considerable patience," said Bernard Kouchner, French foreign minister. His boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, offered that it is time "to put the Afghan people in charge of their fate and future."
'We will support, but ...'
Diplomats in Paris intimated that aid will be tied to Karzai's promises – affirmed here Thursday – to work in partnership with new UN special representative Kai Eide. The point was echoed most loudly in the hallways by Europeans, who trust Mr. Eide after his reform of operations in Kosovo. But US ambassador also termed Eide a needed "traffic cop" for aid.
Karzai himself echoed both praise and criticism. "We need aid, but how it is spent is important.... We give ... Kai Eide our full backing and support," Karzai told a round table that included host president Nicolas Sarkozy, US First Lady Laura Bush, and UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon.
Some 90 percent of the Afghan budget comes from donors – though the country is in the bottom tenth on most transparency rankings.
"Karzai won't get new pledges without greater accounting for it," says Greg Sullivan, a US Department of State spokesman. "But they are in Paris with a 19-page fact sheet that is the best we've ever seen. The gaps in Afghanistan are huge. In Khost you can use a Blackberry, and in Helmund are the Taliban. So Paris is sort of a shareholders' meeting, where donors must be convinced. That's a philosophical change."
"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."
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."