South Asia

What will come out of the 'historic' Kabul conference?

It's the first major international conference in Kabul for as long as any Afghan can remember.

But how will it be remembered?

"Historic" is the word used by Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal, who played a key role in organising the major gathering attended by dozens of foreign ministers and representatives of the international community.

"We are putting on a display Afghan leadership and asking for Afghan ownership," he told the BBC.

No new money will be pledged to a country that's already received tens of billions of dollars in aid since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

But Afghan officials are reiterating their long standing demand that more of this money should be channelled through their own budget, with an initial target of 50% - up from the 20% now being allocated.

'Fundamentals'

In return the international community has worked with Afghans on establishing benchmarks on key economic and social goals with six-month targets.

Image caption What will the day-long conference achieve for Afghanistan's future?

The targets range from job creation, to urban development, agriculture and mining.

"Its back to fundamentals," asserted former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, who is a key conference co-ordinator.

"It's about what to grow, and how to grow it, what to build and how to build it."

UN Special Representative Staffan de Mistura presented a similar assessment.

"The Afghans are saying 'trust us, give us benchmarks' and the international community is saying the same thing."

Responsibility

The buzz word is "Afghanisation" with Afghan government ministries being organised in new clusters expected to meet new targets of financial accountability, efficiency and effectiveness.

Image caption The expectation is that the Afghan National Army will be able to take over security soon

Security is the major issue in a country battling against a growing Taliban insurgency and with Afghan security forces still plagued by corruption, absenteeism and illiteracy.

Mr Ghani said Afghans were, like many in the international community, looking to the date of 2014 as a marker when Afghans could take full responsibility for their own security.

Major troop contributors like Britain have indicated they want to bring their troops home by then.

With a growing realisation that the war cannot be ended militarily, the difficult and delicate issue of talking to armed Afghan groups, including the Taliban, will be on the agenda.

Embattled city

Former Taliban official Abdul Salaam Zaeef said he saw little sign that obstacles to negotiations were being tackled.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionFormer Taliban official Abdul Salaam Zaeef warns of "obstacles" to negotiations

It is a challenge to produce results and a challenge even to organise this major conference in a still embattled city.

Afghan police are taking the lead in what they call an unprecedented security operation. Large areas of the city will be locked down during the conference.

In the hours leading up to it, key roads were closed, leading to traffic gridlock in some neighbourhoods and deserted streets in others, as many residents decided not to venture out.

Glistening chandeliers

Enter the venue on the grounds of the Afghan Foreign Ministry and you would be forgiven for thinking you had entered a different world.

The main meetings were organised in marbled halls glistening with chandeliers.

For quieter conversations, delegates can wander through rose gardens, and over wooden bridges spanning tranquil pools and splashing fountains.

They can visit a special exhibition on the sprawling lawn with Afghan goods and crafts ranging from silk carpets with traditional and modern designs, animal figurines carved from Afghan marble and onyx, and pieces of jewellery cradling precious stones.

"We are using this opportunity to show Afghanistan's unique crafts, its goods and agricultural products for which it is world famous," said Nourullah Delawari, who heads the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency.

He was confident the country could overcome the huge obstacles in a country still struggling to emerge from three decades of war.

Corruption

A suicide bomber on a main road in the days leading up to the conference underlined concerns that despite massive security, the Taliban would try to make their opposition known.

Image caption Kabul is still the scene of suicide attacks and insurgent assaults

And many Afghans now have to be convinced their government can deliver.

One man stopped us on the street and demanded: "Ask about corruption! It goes from top to bottom," he insisted, using his hands to demonstrate the extent of the problem.

Others still expressed hope the conference could help move their country towards the peace and prosperity that has long eluded it.

There is a lot of debate about whether the conference should have been held at all.

Afghan member of Parliament Shukria Barakzai was scathing in her criticism.

"What came out of London, Tokyo, Paris conferences?" she demanded. "Nine years is a long time."

Before and after

Another MP, Daoud Sultanzoy, welcomed a conference he also termed historic, but warned it could be "the last hurrah" unless it produced tangible results.

"Don't think of it as the Kabul conference," said Ashraf Ghani.

"Think of it as the Kabul process. What matters is what comes before and after."

But no-one underestimates the difficulties.

"I have never seen such a complex, difficult and dangerous environment in 40 years of working for the UN," remarked veteran envoy Staffan de Mistura.

"It won't be perfect, but it will be an Afghan future and we must help them to achieve that."

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