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International Conference to Map Plan for Afghanistan's Reconstruction

A two-day conference on Afghanistan's future convenes in London Tuesday. The meeting brings together Afghan and foreign leaders to map out the next stage for the rebuilding of Afghanistan after more than 30 years of war and civil strife. Attention is shifting from building the government to boosting the economy.

The London Conference is a sequel to the 2001 conference on Afghanistan, convened after the ouster of the Taleban. The Bonn Accord that came out of that meeting mandated a series of steps to building government and political structures.

Elections have been held, but the fledgling government of President Hamid Karzai is, analysts say, still on shaky legs as it confronts a host of problems. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns said the time had come for another conference of the givers and recipients of aid to Afghanistan. "The idea that President Karzai and Prime Minister Blair and President Bush and Kofi Annan had was that we should all get together, all the nations assisting Afghanistan, for another conference to look forward at a different time and design a different type of international assistance to Afghanistan," he said.

The participants will draft what is being called the "Afghanistan Compact" under which the Afghan government will commit itself to broad policy objectives in security, governance, and social and economic development.

Security remains a problem for the Karzai government. Remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida are still active, particularly in the eastern and southern parts of the country. Some U.S. forces are being pulled out of trouble spots and their place taken by NATO troops from Britain, Canada, and perhaps the Netherlands.

Marvin Weinbaum, an analyst and scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, says the division of labor between the NATO peacekeeping force known as ISAF and U.S. forces is being redrawn. "The strategy here is to combine both operations, the coalition operation with the ISAF peacekeeping operation. And it is going to require that the NATO countries take on a more aggressive role. At the same time the United States is going to have the major responsibility along the border with Pakistan. That's the toughest part of the job. And I don't see the United States walking away from that or being able to anytime soon," he said.

President Karzai wants to get the economy, which by all accounts is in bad shape, moving. The government has no substantial revenue from taxes, so it is heavily dependent on foreign aid and is expected to stay that way for some time to come. President Karzai has been pushing for his government to take more direct control of the purse strings of international aid. Prior to the conference, the World Bank issued a report endorsing that position, saying that bypassing the government undermines its credibility.

However, some analysts warn that the endemic corruption in the country needs to be addressed. Much of the Afghan economy is fuelled by illicit narcotics trade, which Undersecretary Burns said will be a key topic at the London meeting. As James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, points out, nearly one-half of the Afghan economy depends on the opium and heroin produced from the cultivated poppy plant.

"Forty percent of Afghanistan's G.D.P. (Gross Domestic Product) is in the illegal drug trade. To give you a comparison, about two percent of Colombia's G.D.P. is in the illegal drug trade, and you know what a serious problem the illegal drug trade has posed for Colombia for decades. Well, it's 20 times bigger in Afghanistan," he said.

He says the drug producers and the hard-core Islamists have a common interest in seeing that the central government fails.

Marvin Weinbaum says President Karzai faces a real dilemma. "He's got a problem here because if he goes after the farmers where poppy is grown, just about everywhere in the country, he will be taking away what is for most of them their only place in a cash economy. And the way in which they would like to do it of course is to just go after the traffickers and the labs. But eventually they have to get rid of the crops as well. If he does nothing about it, that's a problem, too, because as everybody points out, it is corroding the whole system," he said.

At the conference, Afghan and international officials will also discuss accountability for those who may have committed crimes against humanity in Afghanistan, particularly during the brief but harsh reign of the Taleban.