WASHINGTON, March 31 (UPI) -- Twenty foreign ministers, including the U.S. Secretary of State, and hundreds of officials from potential donor countries and organizations gathered in Berlin Wednesday to discuss financial aid to Afghanistan.
The talk was mostly about gaps and how to close them.
The first gap was between pledges made in the pervious donors' conference two years ago, and actual payments made to date. The second gap was between what the Afghan government is asking for now, and what they are likely to get. In 2002, at a similar conference in Tokyo $4.5 billion was committed, but the total amount actually delivered to Kabul has been $3.5 billion.
In Berlin, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was seeking $27.5 billion over the next seven years. The figure is based on a detailed report on the country's key needs, titled "Securing Afghanistan's Future," which was drawn up by scores of experts and covers everything from repairing key roads to building up the Afghan army.
"We'll consider the conference successful if we get $11.8 billion over three years," Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan minister of finance, said earlier, "and if 80 percent of that is actually transferred to us, it will be a major success."
What he got was $8.2 billion in the next three years, according to the BBC. Pledges were $2.2 billion from the United States, $900 million from Britain, $400 million from Japan, $390 million from Germany and $297.5 million from the European Union.
Even as the conference got under way in a hotel in the German capital amid heavy security, some participants were saying it was not a realistic target. German Overseas Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul was quoted as saying that the best Kabul could hope for from the two-day meeting would be $9 billion over three years.
Despite the international rhetoric about the importance of preventing the Taliban from regaining power in Afghanistan, foreign aid to the Afghans has lagged behind past levels of help to other stricken countries. According to the New York-based Center for International Cooperation, for example, aid to Kosovo averaged $814 per inhabitant, East Timor received $256 per person, but to date, the contribution to Afghanistan from the international community has averaged $67.
The Afghan message to the conference was that without a heavy infusion of urgently needed cash Afghanistan could sink into a lawless morass of squabbling warlords presiding over a flourishing narco-economy. Already, the trade in opium -- the raw ingredient of heroin -- at $2.3 billion in 2003 is reckoned to be worth the equivalent of half the officially estimated gross domestic product, or three-quarters of the world's supply.
"We do not want to slip back into a haven of drugs and terrorism," Karzai told the conference. "Afghanistan wants to be a model of prosperity and moderation in the region, and we Afghans are dedicated to realizing this vision."
In addition to Secretary of State Colin Powell, conference participants include British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, his French counterpart Dominique de Villepin, the foreign ministers of China, Germany, Pakistan and Russia, and NATO's new secretary-general, Jaap de Hoof Scheffer. The NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force, or ISAF, is in control in capital Kabul and its environs, and has a small presence in Kunduz.
But two and a half years after the U.S.-led offensive that removed the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime together with their ally, al-Qaida, stability continues to elude the Karzai government.
Much of the country is controlled by warlords with their own private armies. In the south, thousands of U.S. and other allied troops are still engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom which has now become an effort to clean elusive Taliban and al-Qaida remnants out of the porous mountain region on the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Between Feb. 14 and March 5, 11 foreign relief workers were killed in four separate incidents -- the same number as in the whole of 2003. In all, violence has claimed 250 lives this year. On March 21, the assassination of the minister of civil aviation, Mirwais Sadiq, who was also the son of the powerful governor of Herat, Ismail Khan, set off deadly street fighting in what was considered one of the safest cities in Afghanistan.
The fragile security situation which has forced Karzai to postpone general elections from June to September is also being discussed in Berlin. The Afghans want NATO to extend its presence to other parts of the country. This week, 2,000 U.S. marines arrived to reinforce the 12,000 American troops already on the ground. Afghan officials at the conference say that it is still not enough, but with attention focused on Iraq, they are wondering if anyone is really listening.