- 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.

While those attending the conference are expected to adopt a paper that outlines how this turnover will occur, they are not expected to agree on where or exactly when Afghan forces would take over from coalition forces in certain provinces, said Mark Sedwill, the top civilian official with the NATO force.

The NATO summit in November in Lisbon is the earliest that the Afghan and international community will be looking to identify provinces where transition can begin to occur sometime in 2011, Mr. Sedwill said.

But readying Afghan security forces for such a handover is only part of the challenge in Afghanistan; the government also must take on more responsibility.

Since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, 77 percent of the $29 billion in international aid spent in Afghanistan has been disbursed on projects with little or no input from Afghan government officials, according to the Afghan Ministry of Finance’s 2009 donor financial review.

While grateful for massive international aid, Afghan officials lament that money spent since 2001 sometimes has financed temporary programs or unsustainable projects that will not make a long-term difference in the daily lives of Afghans.

At a January meeting in London, donor nations agreed to increase the amount of development aid delivered through the Afghan government to 50 percent in two years.

On Tuesday, Mr. Karzai will ask the international community to restate this commitment and to align at least 80 percent of development and governance assistance over the next two years to a list of more than 20 national priority programs being introduced at the conference.

In return for getting foreign assistance directed to Afghan priorities, Mr. Karzai’s government will pledge among other things to improve its financial management system, improve collection of revenues, fight corruption and adopt policies governing bulk cash transfers, according to a draft of the conference communique obtained by the Associated Press.

“The Afghans have made progress in some areas; there are other areas where they are going to make commitments,” said Mr. Sedwill, the top civilian NATO official. “There are other areas where all of us would have like to see more achieved.”

But Mr. Sedwill said there are several areas that the international area has to address, too, especially in the way it awards contracts, which both sides acknowledge has contributed to waste and corruption. The United States and NATO have set up anti-corruption task forces to address complaints that massive international contracts have led to too much subcontracting, which leaves little at the end for the Afghan people and undermines efforts to build up the Afghan government and private sector.

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