Afghans seek greater control over aid funds

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan will ask for more direct control over billions of dollars of aid funds at a major international conference today, 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 today, 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 reintegrate an estimated 36,000 insurgent foot soldiers while exploring talks with moderate Taliban leaders.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among around 60 foreign ministers or heads of international organisations attending the conference, warned yesterday 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 yesterday.

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.

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