- Associated Press - Sunday, July 18, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — At an international conference on Tuesday, the Afghan government will ask donors to put 80 percent of aid money behind programs that the Afghans — not foreign capitals — deem important to development.

It’s a high-stakes meeting for the Kabul government, which wants to show the world leaders attending that it’s making strides toward running its own affairs.

Displaying a new streak of independence, Afghan officials are seeking to take the driver’s seat to guide their nation out of three decades of conflict. Having spent billions and lost so many troops in nearly nine years of war, the international community remains uneasy about letting go of the wheel. Still, the United States and other donor nations believe that strengthening the Afghan government is the only way to end their military involvement in Afghanistan.

“If, after the Kabul Conference, we do not embark on the delivery of the things that we promised to deliver, then the donors as well as everybody else has every right to complain about us and tell us we are not serious,” Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal said.

Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan who is co-chairing the meeting, said there is much work to be done to increase the capacity of the Afghan government. “The ministers know it … we all know it,” he said. He called the conference a historic opportunity for the Afghan government to renew its commitment to the people of Afghanistan. “Realignment will not be overnight,” he said. “It will be a process.”

Mr. Zakhilwal and other key Afghan ministers, working with sparse staffs, have spent weeks writing papers, outlining a plan of action with benchmarks for agriculture, reintegrating insurgents back into society, and economic and social development.

They not only are battling international skepticism but also must prove themselves to the Afghan public, who have little trust in their government.

The conference is “useless,” said Bissullah, a 43-year-old man from the north end of Kabul who goes by only one name. “I am not hopeful that this conference is going to benefit us in any way.”

Afghan lawmaker and political analyst Shukria Barekzai in the capital called the Kabul conference just another international meeting.

“They are only speaking about nice and wonderful reports and big promises,” she said. “We, as a nation, are tired of the lip service. We are tired of having more casualties. We are tired of living in war.”

Thousands of Afghan soldiers and police have been deployed to secure the capital during the one-day meeting. Officials worry that Tuesday’s conference will draw a repeat of the violence seen at national peace conference in May when two militants were killed in a gunbattle with security forces and a rocket landed with a thud about 100 yards from the meeting site.

Just before noon on Sunday, a suicide bombing near a market killed three civilians and wounded dozens. On Friday night, a combined international and Afghan commando force captured a Taliban bomb-making expert in the capital.

Workers were busy sprucing up the city on Sunday: picking up trash, planting flowers and painting curbs red and white. A large banner has been hung near the airport to welcome U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and delegations from more than 60 nations plus a host of other diplomats and representatives from international organizations.

The conference comes at a critical juncture in the war. NATO and Afghan forces are moving into areas controlled by the Taliban, and the insurgents are pushing back. June was the deadliest month for U.S. and international forces with the deaths of 103 service members, including 60 Americans.

In his inaugural address in November 2009, President Hamid Karzai said Afghan security forces should take the lead in ensuring security and stability across the country by the end of 2014.

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