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Afghan Aid Urgently Needed, Powell Says

Relief: Secretary tells meeting of international donors that rebuilding 'cannot wait.' But all sides admit they don't yet know the cost of package.


WASHINGTON — The world's traditional providers of foreign aid met at the State Department on Tuesday to plot the postwar reconstruction of Afghanistan, a multibillion-dollar effort designed to give the benefits of peace to a population that has known little but war.

Most of the 27 nations and international organizations represented at the meeting had not anticipated rebuilding the country any time soon because they expected the war to drag on. But with the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime, the task is suddenly critical.

"We cannot wait," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the gathering. "We must act as fast as we can."

However, Powell and other participants admitted that they do not yet know how much the package will cost. And they said there is little they can do until a broad-based post-Taliban government is in place, a process that also is lagging far behind the battlefield advances of the U.S.-led coalition.

Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the U.N. Development Program, said that reconstruction may cost about $1 billion a year for the first two years, but that it would rise sharply after that as emergency repairs are completed and costly economic projects are begun. But talking to reporters after the conference, Brown admitted that the $1-billion-a-year figure was a very rough guess.

"It will cost a lot of money," he said.

The international community seems poised to help the 25 million Afghans recover from more than a month of U.S. bombing and decades of misrule, including the last five years by the Taliban. But Brown said the aid givers usually lose interest before such long reconstruction jobs can be completed.

Delegates to the Washington conference were not asked for pledges of specific amounts because planning is not yet far enough along. That step probably will come at a meeting scheduled for late January in Tokyo.

On Tuesday, the only decision taken by the conference was to establish a steering committee of the United States and Japan, which are co-chairing the gathering, along with the European Union and Saudi Arabia.

In a separate issue, a senior State Department official said the collapse of the Taliban has cleared the way for the U.S., U.N. agencies and nongovernmental relief organizations to ship vast amounts of food in overland convoys, sharply increasing the amount that had been delivered by airdrops when the Taliban controlled much of the country.

"Food is still a big challenge, but things are a lot better than they were," the official told reporters. Emergency food aid is needed to prevent mass starvation this winter.

Powell said the international community must try to help the vast majority of Afghan people who wake up "hungry, cold and sick every morning."

"When Al Qaeda is gone, when the Taliban regime has passed into history, . . . we then have an enormous obligation . . . not to leave the Afghan people in a lurch, to not walk away, as has been done in the past."

Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill ticked off Afghanistan's dire statistics: annual average income of less than $200 per person, one of six children dies before age 1, two-thirds of the populace illiterate and only 13% with access to water.

"We face, as a world, a daunting challenge, a challenge that represents the facts of decades of mismanagement and worse," O'Neill said.

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