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Officials Stress Long-Term Commitments As Afghans Open 'New Chapter'

31 January 2006 -- British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have told participants in a two-day London conference devoted to the future of Afghanistan that their administrations are committed to that country's long-term health.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai then hailed a "new chapter" in his country's history and predicted that efforts would be focused increasingly on improving the country for its roughly 30 million inhabitants.

U.S. Aid Pledge

Rice announced that the United States plans to give that country $1.1 billion in additional aid next year.

"In addition to our current commitment of nearly $6 billion, today I am proud to announce that [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush will ask our Congress for $1.1 billion in new assistance to support the people of Afghanistan in the next year," Rice said.

Rice's speech came after British Prime Minister Tony Blair opened the so-called London Conference on the future of Afghanistan. She laid out the importance that the Bush administration assigns to a close, "strategic partnership" with Kabul in the years to come.

"With so much progress [in Afghanistan during the last four years], some could be tempted to think that the hard work is done," Rice told participants from 70 countries. "President Bush and I do not share this view, nor do the American people. The United States is fully devoted to the long-term success of Afghanistan. For us, this is a strategic partnership."

'Tremendous Progress'
In his opening speech, Blair warned of obstacles ahead but stressed positive achievements since the ouster of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001. He said the international community is committed to building a stable and democratic Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan faces immense challenges. But let us also remember the tremendous progress that has been made," Blair said. "I don't just mean progress in terms of its economy, where the living standards of the people have risen and the economy has grown. But I also mean the progress in terms of the liberty and freedom that people enjoy in Afghanistan when for so long they were denied it."

The two-day meeting is expected to result in support for a five-year plan setting out goals for economic development, increased security, and success in the battle against corruption and the illegal opium trade in Afghanistan. That document is known as the London Compact.

"The purpose of the conference today is, of course, to sign the London Compact -- which will pledge us to help Afghanistan in any way that we can for the future," Blair said. "My own country -- over the next three years -- is committed fto some 500 million pounds' worth of help. But we're also not just committing financial assistance, but of course, the forces -- the armed forces of many countries around this table -- are represented in Afghanistan."

Organizers also are seeking increased independence for the Afghan government -- rather than the international community -- to administer to the country's affairs.

Afghan President Hails 'New Chapter'

In his speech, Afghan President Karzai touted his country's progress. But Karzai, who emerged as the internationally backed choice to lead a transitional administration in 2001 and was reelected in the country's first-ever direct presidential election in 2004, noted that it is time for a "new chapter" that is focused more specifically on the needs of Afghans.

"Four years ago, the Bonn Agreement presented us with a formidable set of objectives," said Karzai. "Today, I am pleased that we successfully conclude the Bonn Process and open a new chapter of Afghanistan's rebuilding and partnership with the international community. However, in spite of the achievements, we have a long road ahead and significant challenges to overcome. We have reestablished our institutions of governance and justice. But these need to develop to serve the interests of the Afghan people."

He alluded to decades of destruction and impairment, suggesting that Afghanistan's economic fortunes will take years to reverse.

"Our resurgent economy will need many more years to grow at substantial levels before it can uplift the majority of our people from poverty," Karzai said. "And above all the challenges, terrorism and narcotics represent the gravest of threats. Terrorism no longer rules Afghanistan. But it continues to be a threat to our people's security and welfare."

The Afghan government will present its own list of priorities in a National Development Strategy that it will distribute at the conference, including plans for ensuring security, governing more effectively, and safeguarding citizens' rights.

"Through developing the institutional capacities of the state, we will enforce the rule of law and ensure the protection of the rights of our people," Karzai said. "We will expedite administrative and judicial reforms, remove red tape, create an efficient and transparent administration, and fight corruption and nepotism."


Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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