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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 March, 2004, 04:15 GMT 05:15 UK
Afghanistan nation-building at critical point
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The effort to rebuild Afghanistan is reaching a critical point and the will of the outside world to help will be on trial at a two-day international conference in Berlin this week.

ISAF soldier in Afghanistan watches burning of drugs
The drug industry is a major problem

Afghanistan is being seen as a key test of nation-building and one which will have important lessons for Iraq.

"So much is riding on getting Afghanistan out of the swamp," said Thomas Withington, defence analyst and former associate at King's College Centre for Defence Studies in London.

"The United States is genuine when it says it will not walk away. It has learned the lessons of what happens if you do."

The conference, on Wednesday and Thursday, has been preceded by a warning in a joint report from the Afghan government and the United Nations that the country needs $27.5bn over the next few years to "avoid regressing into chaos and lawlessness".

The poppy problem

One of the main problems is the growing of opium poppies and the production of heroin. The report, called Securing Afghanistan's Future, states: "The general lawlessness surrounding a pervasive drug industry could lead to the emergence of another fundamentalist law and order government harbouring Islamic extremists.

So much is riding on getting Afghanistan out of the swamp
Thomas Withington

"There is a growing consensus around the idea that victory in the war on terror can only be achieved if the war on drugs is successfully prosecuted."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reinforced this warning by saying in Berlin: "The fight against drugs is actually the fight for Afghanistan."

The tactic of linking drugs to the future of the country and even the war on terror is quite a clever one from a government seeking Western money. It will make it easier for Western governments to give a bit more since they can present this not as charity but self-interest.

Tasks for conference

So what will the conference try to do?

It will look at three main areas - support, security and the drugs crisis.

  • Support: The idea is to give what British officials described as "a strong signal of partnership with the Afghan government." President Karzai has set elections for September, somewhat later than originally expected, but now there is a date which will concentrate minds and a lot needs to be done. Mr Karzai of course is the West's favourite candidate in the election.

    Afghanistan is, according to British officials, likely to get $4bn for its immediate needs, though the figure of $27.5bn is not likely to be reached in Berlin. The country has already had $3.5bn of the $4.5bn pledged in Tokyo in January 2002.

  • Security: This is one of the key areas of international support. Nato has taken over the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and is about to agree a plan to expand its operations.

    Britain is expected to send another 100 or so soldiers and officials to staff another of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams which are leading the rebuilding efforts locally. Spain is expected to double its troop numbers from 250, perhaps as compensation for its likely withdrawal from Iraq.

    The Afghan army should reach 10,000 and the police force 20,000 by June.

    Training of these forces demonstrates the multinational nature of help for Afghanistan. The Americans are training the ordinary soldiers, the British the non-commissioned officers and the French the officers. The Germans are training the police. The Italians take the lead in training the judiciary. A Canadian general currently commands ISAF.

    The emergence of functioning security forces and the disarming of warlord militias and individuals is a key target in the nation-building process.

    As for combat operations against Taleban or al-Qaeda supporters, these are being conducted by 11,000 mainly American troops in a separate operation.

  • Drugs:The UK is the lead country in helping the Afghans try to reduce the growing of opium poppies and the production of heroin. The British government says that about 95% of heroin in the UK originates in Afghanistan. One of the problems is that farmers find it hard to grow anything else. So the development of alternative crops and markets is vital.

    The conference will want to give support to an ambitious Afghan plan to eliminate opium production by 2013. A British official, when asked if this was realistic, simply said it was "challenging".

    Afghan's neighbouring countries are expected to make a declaration of support, with an emphasis on the prevention of smuggling.

UNDP's David Lockwood
"There have been incredible achievements."

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