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Nations Pledge Support for Afghanistan

Envoys from nearly 70 nations and international bodies vowed Tuesday to maintain their financial support for Afghanistan, which is still plagued by violence and poverty more than four years after the fall of the Taliban.

Speaking at the start of the two-day meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the Bush administration planned to ask Congress for $1.1 billion in aid for Afghanistan next year — a figure similar to 2006.

"The transformation of Afghanistan is remarkable but incomplete," Rice said before traveling back to Washington for President Bush's State of the Union speech Tuesday night. "And it is essential that we all increase our support for the Afghan people."

Britain announced $800 million in new aid over the next three years, and Prime Minister Tony Blair said seeing Afghanistan become a stable democracy was "in the interests of the whole international community."

"This is a struggle for freedom and for moderation and for democracy and we will be with you," he told Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The conference delegates, including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, issued a five-year blueprint for the troubled central Asian nation's security, economic development and counter-narcotic efforts.

The plan, dubbed the "Afghanistan Compact," is intended as a successor to the deal reached at a December 2001 conference in Bonn, Germany, establishing a political process for Afghanistan after a U.S.-led coalition overthrew the hard-line Taliban regime.

In the new document, Afghanistan promises to strive to disarm illegal militias, guard human rights, cut poverty and tackle the drug trade, while international donors vow to provide support.

"The Afghan nation has emerged from the ashes of conflict to stand today as a beacon of hope to our people and the world," the document said.

"Our people, in particular our children, now have real hope of living in a time of peace, stability and economic development."

Billions of dollars in aid have brought new hospitals, clinics and roads to Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted by a U.S.-led invasion. School enrollment has soared from 900,000 to 5 million and many of the new students are girls, who were barred by the Islamic regime from attending classes.

But most Afghans remain mired in poverty, and the country — which was torn by war for decades — still has some of the highest mortality rates in the world. Many have grown frustrated with the aid effort, complaining that much of the money flowing in from abroad has been wasted.

Security remains a major problem.

About 1,600 people were killed last year in militant violence, including 91 U.S. troops, making 2005 the deadliest year since 2001. The past four months have seen an unprecedented spate of 20 suicide bombings, raising fears of further bloodshed.

The fighting has left parts of southern and eastern regions off-limits to aid workers, while a series of attacks on schools — including three burned down last week and a principal beheaded earlier this month — have forced many to close.

Annan said the violence "serves as a sad reminder of the fragile state" of the country's progress.

Bush said this month he plans to cut U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan from 19,000 to 16,500 during this year as the NATO force expands.

Rice said Monday it would be wrong to interpret that as a sign the United States plans to walk away from Afghanistan. She said Washington had learned a lesson from the chaos that wracked the country after the United States failed to help it rebuild following the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989.

Afghanistan quickly became a haven for terrorists.

The booming trade in opium and heroin is another major challenge for Karzai's government. Afghanistan is the source of nearly 90 percent of the world's opium and heroin, and many warn the country is fast becoming a "narco-state."

The development plan says tackling drug production will be a priority for Afghanistan and lays out a strategy combining better interdiction and law enforcement with rural development that gives farmers better ways to earn their living than growing opium.

Karzai predicted it would take at least 10 years to eradicate the drug trade, saying it had resulted from decades of desparation in rural Afghanistan.

The compact sets out a series of targets for Karzai's government. They include tripling the Afghan army to 70,000 troops and disbanding all illegal militias by 2007.