WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell asked for long-term commitment to rebuild Afghanistan from the 22 countries, United Nations organizations and international banks in attendance at the first "Afghan Reconstruction" meeting held Tuesday at the State Department.
"We must seek and seize opportunities to begin reconstruction as areas of the country are freed from Taliban control. We cannot wait. We must act as fast as we can," Powell told the meeting of businessmen and diplomats.
The State Department is rushing to follow rapid military progress in Afghanistan with a plan to rebuild the country after the fall of the Taliban regime, which has been targeted by the U.S.-led coalition for supporting terrorist Usama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.
The first meeting of the parties participating in the Afghan reconstruction effort will take place in Germany, said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer following the Powell meeting. No date has been set yet for that initial discussion.
The United States is actively recruiting allies in this effort to demonstrate its dedication to aiding Afghanistan after the military campaign is finished, as opposed to its lack of assistance following the Soviet Union's withdrawal in 1989, leaving Afghanistan in a political and financial vacuum.
The United States and Japan co-sponsored the meeting. Powell said their first goal is to create two entities to carry out the work of reconstruction. The first entity would be a "steering group," designed to "help focus our efforts at the policy level, encourage contributions and give overall guidance."
Powell said that group should meet within a month and coordinate efforts with the World Bank, the U.N. Development Program and the Asian Development Bank, which will meet in Islamabad, Pakistan next week.
The next phase would be formation of an "implementation group," which would organize operational matters, including efforts on the ground in Afghanistan.
Among the priorities: to help the millions of Afghan refugees return from camps in Pakistan and Iran; to set up schools for children -- girls included; to create jobs for adults; to devise ways to revitalize agriculture and replace opium as a primary product.
"It will be especially important in the first weeks and months of this program to put all these pieces in place so we can make sure that we have an immediate, visible impact on people's lives," Powell said. "For the first time in decades the people of Afghanistan have reason to hope for themselves and for their children. Together we can make that hope tangible and real."
That hope began last month as the U.S. military launched a massive strike on Afghanistan to oust bin Laden, his Al Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban regime. At the same time, President Bush contributed $320 million in assistance to Afghan citizens.
Powell urged nations to continue providing humanitarian assistance while the international community looks for way to help tribal leaders in the country develop a post-Taliban government.
"The international community's vital humanitarian work clearly must continue and gain pace as the Taliban retreats and the winter gets ever closer," Powell said, adding that he doesn't know how much money or other forms of rehabilitation and reconstruction assistance will be needed from the international community.
As Powell worked the diplomatic front, another Bush official worked the media front, telling reporters that the Bush administration should use troops, bombers, dissidents and opposition forces to destroy President Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq.
Richard Perle, who serves on Bush's defense policy board, said in his view Iraq should be the next target in the war against terrorism because after the Taliban, Iraq "poses the greatest threat to the United States."
There is evidence linking Saddam to Al Qaeda, Perle said, and "the only way to deal with Saddam Hussein is to destroy his regime."
He added that "there will be dancing in the streets" in other Arab countries when Saddam is overthrown, even if they criticize such an attack.
Such a defeat will also put other nations on notice that if they support terrorism, they may be targeted as well, Perle said.
Fox News' Teri Schultz and the Associated Press contributed to this report.