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US Expresses Confidence in Karzai Ahead of Afghan Donor Meet

A senior State Department official Tuesday reaffirmed U.S. confidence in Afghan President Hamid Karzai in advance of a pledging conference in Paris for the Afghan leader's five-year development plan. The donor conference is expected to raise more than $10 billion. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The donor conference, to be attended by U.S. First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among others, is intended to underline long-term international support for Mr. Karzai's $50 billion development plan.

But a State Department briefing on the conference was dominated by questions about the Karzai government's performance against the Taliban insurgency and the drug trade, fueled by a New York Times report late last week that U.S. support for the Afghan leader is fading because of poor performance in those areas.

Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher said it is up to the Afghan people, not the United States, to choose the country's leadership but that the Bush administration "stands behind" and has confidence in Mr. Karzai.

"The fact is Afghanistan has a democratically-elected president. He's somebody we've worked very well with. He's somebody we intend to work very well with as we go forward. He understands the challenges that they face with corruption, weak governance, poppy growth, narcotics. There's a lot of challenges that they face, and he's willing to deal with them. We're willing to work with him to deal with them," he said.

Boucher said he did not expect the 65-nation Paris meeting to fully underwrite the Karzai plan, but that he expected the pledges to substantially exceed the more than $10 billion raised at a similar conference in London two years ago.

Mrs. Bush, fresh from a visit to Afghanistan earlier this week, is to announce the United States pledge at the meeting Thursday. While no precise figures were given, an official here said it would be in the neighborhood of $10 billion over two years.

Assistant Secretary Boucher said Afghanistan's opium trade and insurgency "feed off of one another," and that the Karzai government has been able to make anti-drug progress in the relatively secure north and east of the country, but less in the south where the Taleban is active.

Boucher said the Taleban has lately turned to suicide bombings and other terror tactics because NATO forces and increasingly capable Afghan units have thwarted plans the Islamic militants boasted of last year to take control of large swaths of territory and perhaps even seize Kandahar, the country's second largest city.

"They set out to take towns and territory. They would talk about putting a ring around Kandahar, and trying to take Kandahar. They couldn't do it. In fact they haven't been able to mass forces successfully or take areas. They've been able to blow into villages, make a couple of cell phone calls, take a couple of pictures, and then get pushed out as soon as the government or NATO troops show up," he said.

Boucher said in addition to fund-raising, the Paris meeting will aim to improve coordination among donor countries and international organizations with Afghan operations and strengthen the hand of the U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan Kai Eide.

The Norwegian diplomat, named to the U.N. post in March, has complained that the international community does not spend Afghan aid money efficiently enough and that many donor states lag in fulfilling pledges.