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London Prepares for Afghanistan Conference

Delegates from about 70 countries and donor institutions are gathering in London for a conference beginning Tuesday to approve a five-year agreement for future development aid in Afghanistan.

The London Conference on Afghanistan aims to build more international support for the battle-scarred country to combat poverty, corruption, narcotics trafficking and insurgency.

Afghan officials emphasize that Afghanistan has made remarkable progress in the four years since a U.S.-led invasion against the Taleban regime and the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has highlighted the accomplishments in a pre-conference speech at the London-based foreign affairs institute, Chatham House.

"Afghanistan has been a success story," he said. "It has been a success story by all accounts. Today we have a constitution. Today we have an elected president. Today we have an elected parliament."

Still, the foreign minister says, it will be several years before Afghanistan is strong enough, without foreign military assistance, to defend itself against Taleban insurgents and well-armed narcotics gangs.

"The presence of the international forces in Afghanistan, of course it is needed, not only for the overall stability of the country but they are also helping us in the training of our own national army, our own national police force, and other security institutions."

About 19,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Afghanistan and have primary responsibility for anti-insurgency operations in the east and south. A NATO force is expected to grow to about 15,000 troops later this year to support training and security missions elsewhere in the country.

Another concern of the international community is opium production in Afghanistan. British officials say about 90 percent of the heroin sold in Britain comes from Afghanistan.

The Afghan counter-narcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, says a $2-billion trust fund is being established with foreign funds to finance a five-year anti-drug program.

There have been ongoing concerns in the West that corrupt provincial government officials are protecting heroin traffickers. Qaderi says new criminal justice tribunals are prepared to prosecute high government officials if evidence is found against them.

Ahead of the conference, the World Food Program office in London has reminded delegates that most Afghans continue to live hand-to-mouth. The WFP says 6.5 million Afghans remain dependent on food aid, and the agency is appealing for $360 million over three years. So far, the WFP says only 11 percent of the money has been pledged.