Kabul: Afghanistan will ask for more direct control over billions of dollars of aid funds at a major international conference on Tuesday, but its foreign partners remain concerned about its ability to take the first steps alone.
A foreign troop surge that aims to tackle the Taliban in their spiritual heartland is now underway, but questions remain over the effectiveness of a much-trumpeted accompanying government drive to improve local governance and development.
Over $40 billion has been spent on Afghanistan since 2002, according to Oxfam, and around half that on training and equipping an army and police to take over security as foreign contributors plan their withdrawals from the 150,000-strong NATO-led force.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai will not ask for more money on Tuesday, but instead for more of $13 billion already earmarked for the next five years to come through government coffers.
In return he is expected to offer six-month benchmarks against which to judge progress, as well as a renewed campaign against high level graft.
If Afghans see development projects coming from the government rather than foreigners, the thinking goes, they are more likely to support it. The country holds elections to parliament in September.
Wary too that his western allies want out sooner rather than later, Karzai is also seeking support for a peace plan that aims to win over and reintergrate an estimated 36,000 insurgent foot soldiers while exploring talks with moderate Taliban leaders.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among around 60 foreign ministers or heads of international organizations attending the conference, warned on Monday that some Taliban remained persona non grata.
Washington`s costly war in Afghanistan was launched against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda who planned the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States under the protection of the Taliban`s leaders.
"We would strongly advise our friends in Afghanistan to deal with those who are committed to a peaceful future," she said in a townhall-style meeting in Pakistan on Monday.
The Taliban have anyway been emboldened by a perception that Washington is not committed to a drawn-out fight -- the near nine-year-old war is already the America`s longest -- and insists they will not stop fighting until all foreign forces leave.
A security blanket has been thrown over the capital for the conference, Afghanistan`s biggest in over three decades, with the area that houses the capital`s diplomatic and government quarter under virtual lockdown.
Several loud blasts were heard near the heavily barricaded area late on Monday, probably insurgent rockets, but Kabul is frequently the target of bloody suicide bomb and commando-style attacks. Further details were not available.
Insurgents last month attacked a traditional gathering of Afghan tribal leaders and other notables in Kabul as it was being addressed by Karzai, and the security breach led to the resignations of the interior minister and intelligence chief.
Ordinary Afghans grumbled about disruptions, but millions now rely on the massive foreign military and development effort which is effectively the country`s biggest industry -- matched only by the billion dollar narcotics trade.
The government will on Tuesday give details of national programs that it hopes will replace both and bring economic benefit and social security to the country`s 29 million people, who remain among the world`s poorest and least educated.
Some analysts and diplomats say the programs are long on hope and short on detail, but all agree they come at a crucial time.
- Asking donors to increase aid through government channels from the current 20 percent to 50, promising better accounting in return and stepped up prosecution of graft and corruption cases involving officials through special courts.
- Expanding the army to a strength of over 170,000 by October 2011, and the national police to 134,000 as well as the formation of a new local police force in insecure areas.
- Introducing a program that aims to reintegrate up to 36,000 ex-combatants within five years.
- Increasing collection of domestic revenues to 9.4 pct of GDP by March next year.
A recent poll found 74 percent of Afghans believed working with foreign forces was wrong and 68 percent believed they didn`t protect them. Some 65 percent wanted the Taliban and its leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, to join the government.
In the west, and particularly the United States, polls regularly show citizens want their government to extricate themselves from Afghanistan as soon as possible.