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The end, or the beginning?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 13 - 12 - 2001

Germany and Japan will be the major donors to Afghanistan under the terms of the Berlin settlement. But he who pays the piper does not always call the tune, as Gamal Nkrumah writes
The controversial conclusion in the old German capital, Bonn, of talks to establish an interim Afghan administration, was quickly followed in the new German capital, Berlin, by a conference on economic and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Another conference on Afghanistan's future will take place in Tokyo in January. The two conferences highlight the hurried way in which Western democracies insist on moulding poorer countries in their image, regardless of the inherent political difficulties that may ensue.
One result of that haste is the welter of contradictions that characterises the Afghan settlement. The Bonn conference, widely acclaimed as a success, has been criticised in thoughtful quarters as plastering over worrying strains between Afghanistan's leaders. Others also think that the preponderance of Northern Alliance interests and the over-representation of ethnic Uzbek and Tajik political leaders in the new interim Afghan government will cause later difficulties. Likewise, the Berlin conference was seen as concentrating on the grand sum totals of humanitarian aid at the expense of difficult political detail. To complicate matters, there are growing doubts that donors in the grip of world recession can fulfil their pledges.
While the two conferences were held on German soil, the United States relentlessly determined the scope and pace of the discussions. Germany and Japan have emerged as the main international humanitarian aid donors to Afghanistan. Germany has also offered to contribute 1,000 troops to the anti-terror campaign, and other European countries are clamouring to get involved. But the fact that security and oil politics are pivotal to any reconstruction and development agenda underscores the vital role played by the US.
These concerns aside, the organisers put on a brave face. "There was little discussion of details; rather the emphasis was on the framework and how to proceed," Wolfgang Vorwerk, head of the Near East Division at the German Federal Foreign Office, told Al- Ahram Weekly.
Germany, which chairs the Afghan Support Group this year, is keen to contribute to Afghan recovery. It puts the cost of "reconstruction" at $6 billion, while UN affiliate organisations put the figure at around $30 billion. Other wealthy and industrially advanced countries like Japan are also eager to assist, in coordination, of course, with Washington.
The German Foreign Office says that $1.3 billion has already been raised by the countries comprising the Afghan support group, plus the European Union and the UN. International economic and political coordination under US tutelage was stressed. "To ensure all the aid is effective, it will be crucial to ensure that international efforts are not fragmented, rather that they are brought together in a joint fund," Joshka Fischer, German foreign minister, explained. As a result, they are working closely with Washington and US multinational corporations -- especially oil firms.
Big hopes for turning the Afghan economy around rest on plans to develop oil and natural gas pipelines from the vast Central Asian and Caspian Sea energy reserves, passing through Afghan territory, and leading to the Arabian Sea ports of Pakistan. Hopes are also banked on Afghanistan's relative proximity to the emerging markets of Asia, especially India and China, two countries whose voices have been somewhat muted as far as Afghan economic development and reconstruction are concerned.
Those hopes have interested other parties, too. On his way to a meeting with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, Fischer flew to Moscow, where he discussed Afghanistan with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia is nervous about American penetration of markets in Central Asia; a region it considers its own fief. Plans recently unveiled by Unocal, the US-based multinational that leads an international consortium to construct the Central Asian oil and gas pipeline through Afghanistan, have raised the curiosity of decision-makers in Moscow. The Russians naturally want a piece of the pie.
With the hierarchy of those concerned for Afghanistan's future in place, the organisers of the 5-6 December Berlin conference went to work on the premise that assistance to Afghanistan must go through three phases: humanitarian relief; recovery; and reconstruction. "Never again must Afghanistan be left to its fate. Afghanistan depends on a massive long-term international effort for humanitarian aid and reconstruction. A clear signal has to come from this conference: we will not leave the people of Afghanistan alone in this hour of hunger and need," said Fischer at the opening of the Berlin conference.
Although United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan was on his way to Oslo to receive his Nobel Prize, the Berlin conference was not short of international luminaries, including many heads of UN bodies. Among the côterie of international dignitaries present were Kenzo Oshima, UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs; Rudd Lubbers, former Dutch premier and currently UN high commissioner for refugees (UNHCR); Mark Malloch-Brown, administrator of the UN Development Programme; UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan Fransesc Vendrell and UN Secretary-General Special Representative to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi.
Also present were Jakob Kellerberger, president of the International Red Cross, and World Bank President James Wolfensohn.
All participants agreed that security was the key to economic development and reconstruction in Afghanistan. "Stable security is an absolute precondition for humanitarian aid," said Oshima. Other participants concurred. "One lesson we have learnt is that we should not allow the continued existence of a failed or destitute country that could turn into a hotbed of terrorism," explained Sadako Ogata, the Japanese government representative for Afghan issues and former UNHCR, who has spent over a decade lobbying in vain for more international aid to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's immediate neighbours, the former Soviet Central Asian republics, Iran and Pakistan, were also consulted in a special forum at which they were encouraged to air the specific difficulties that they face from the influx of refugees fleeing war and famine in Afghanistan. Western officials were concerned at delays to the opening of the Friendship Bridge on the Amu Darya river, which links Uzbekistan to Afghanistan, and is an important conduit for aid supplies into the war-torn country. But its opening at the close of the Berlin conference, and the simultaneous opening by the Tajik government of the ferry crossing on the Pyandzh river which divides Tajikistan and Afghanistan, raised hopes that Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbours are now less jittery about dealing with Afghanistan. Uzbekistan, in particular, has been reluctant to open the bridge because it feared that thousands of Taliban warriors might still be lurking in the area, ready to join with Uzbekistan's militant Islamist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which was blacklisted by Washington after the 11 September attacks.
Instead, as many of the border points reopen, it is hoped that trade between Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbours will increase. Trade with the large countries that neighbour Afghanistan (India and China) is also expected to receive a boost. It is not yet clear, though, how far trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan, hitherto Afghanistan's main trading partner, will be affected by the collapse of the Taliban regime. The fallen Taliban strongholds of Kandahar and Jalalabad were the main Afghan entrepôts for trade with Pakistan during the Taliban era; the World Bank valued that trade at $2.5 billion in 1996-97. But doubtless market opportunities will continue to motivate the more entrepreneurial-minded: whatever the regime they have to live under.
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