Afghanistan will need the financial support of other countries for at least another decade beyond the 2014 departure of foreign troops, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Monday at an international conference.
But the conference on the future of Afghanistan in Bonn was overshadowed by a public display of bad blood between the United States and Pakistan, the two nations with the greatest stake and say in making Afghanistan safe and solvent.
Pakistan boycotted the meeting to protest an apparently errant U.S. air strike last month that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the rough border with Afghanistan. The strike furthered the perception in Pakistan that NATO and the U.S. are its true enemies, not the Taliban militants that operate on both sides of the border.
"It was unfortunate that they did not participate," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. "I expect that Pakistan will be involved going forward and we expect them to play a constructive role."
Pakistan is seen as instrumental to ending the insurgency in Afghanistan because of its links to militant groups and its unwillingness, from the U.S. and NATO perspective, to drive insurgents from safe havens on its soil where they regroup and rearm.
During the one-day conference, about 100 nations and international organizations, including the United Nations, jointly pledged political and financial long-term support for war-torn Afghanistan to prevent it from falling back into chaos or becoming a safe haven for terrorists.
"Together we have spent blood and treasure in fighting terrorism," Karzai said. "Your continued solidarity, your commitment and support will be crucial so that we can consolidate our gains and continue to address the challenges that remain."
Donor nations did not commit to specific figures but pledged that economic and other advances in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001 should be safeguarded with continued funding. A donor conference will be held in July in Japan.
"We will need your steadfast support for at least another decade," Karzai told the delegates, echoing a recent assessment by the World Bank that predicted a sharp budget shortfall as the 130,000 international troops gradually withdraw.
The United States announced it would free more than $650 million in support for small community-based development projects in Afghanistan, frozen because of financial irregularities in Afghanistan's key Kabul Bank.
Afghanistan estimates it will need outside contributions of roughly $10 billion in 2015 and onward, slightly less than half the country's annual gross national product, mostly because it won't be able to pay for its security forces which are slated to increase to 352,000 personnel by the end of 2014.
Organizer Germany and the United States had once hoped this week's conference would showcase progress toward a political settlement between Afghanistan and the Taliban-led insurgency that 10 years of fighting by international forces has failed to dislodge. Instead, it became a status report on halting progress on other fronts and a glaring reminder that neither the Taliban nor Pakistan is ready to sign up to the international agenda for Afghanistan.
Participating nations pledged their support for an inclusive Afghan-led reconciliation process on condition that any outcome must reject violence, terrorism and endorse the Afghan constitution and its guarantee of human rights.
"The entire region has a stake in Afghanistan's future and much to lose if the country again becomes a source of terrorism and instability," Clinton told the delegates.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani later told The Associated Press in Lahore, Pakistan, that his country remains committed to working with Afghanistan to bring insurgent leaders into talks with the government.
"I think we have evolved some mechanisms, and we are ready to cooperate," he said, referring to meetings with Afghanistan's military and intelligence chiefs on a framework for talks.
The Bonn conference's final declaration outlines a series of "firm mutual commitments" for the decade following the troop withdrawal.
Afghanistan commits in the document to do its homework in terms of reform, fighting corruption, promoting good governance and strengthening democracy. The international community, in return, pledged to direct "financial support toward Afghanistan's economic development and security-related costs," conveying the message that Kabul can count on its partners beyond 2014.
"We reiterate our common determination to never allow Afghanistan to once again become a haven for international terrorism," the declaration stated.
Afghanistan's western neighbor, Iran, did join the conference, represented by Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. That set up a rare occasion when two U.S. and Iranian representatives were in the same room, and came a day after Iran claimed it shot down a U.S. surveillance drone. The Pentagon has said it lost a drone last week in western Afghanistan due to mechanical failure.
Iran stands ready to support Afghanistan and an Afghan-led reconciliation process, Salehi said, while strongly condemning the idea of any military bases remaining after 2014.
The U.S. is currently seeking an agreement with the Afghan government establishing operating rules for the small number of remaining U.S. forces and other issues after international forces withdraw.
The conference pledged to support the Afghan security forces' "training and equipping, financing and development of capabilities beyond the end of the transition period" in 2014.
Despite more than a decade of international intervention, Afghanistan still ranks among the world's poorest and most corrupt nations.
It is failing in two major areas in particular: security and good government. Violence has gone up sharply this year with increasingly brazen attacks, and has spread to the once-peaceful north of the country. Widespread corruption is bedeviling attempts to create a viable Afghan government and institutions to take over when the U.S. and NATO leave.
Moreover, Afghanistan provides about 90 percent of the world's opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin. Money from the sale of opium is also used to fuel the insurgency, helping to buy weapons and equipment for the Taliban.
"The road ahead will remain stony and difficult. It will require endurance and tenacity," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.
There are many measures of improvement in Afghanistan since 2001, however, including higher school enrollment, especially for girls, and better health. Afghans are living longer, fewer infants are dying and more women are surviving childbirth because health care has dramatically improved around the country in the past decade, according to an Afghan Health Ministry survey.
More than 6 million children are in school today, according to the United Nations. During the Taliban, girls were denied schooling, and before that most schools were closed because of fighting.
Chris Brummitt in Lahore, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
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