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At Afghan Conference, Western Governments Affirm Their Commitments

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

An international conference in Afghanistan has just finished in London. This gathering was intended to help chart the country's future. We're going to talk about what that future is. NPR's Ari Shapiro covered the London conference. He's on the line. Hi, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO: Morning.

INSKEEP: And we're also joined by NPR's Sean Carberry, who's covered Afghanistan for many years. Hello to you, Sean.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And Ari, you were on the scene of the conference. What came out of it?

SHAPIRO: It pretty much went according to plan. This was a chance for Afghanistan's new leaders to introduce themselves to the West and describe their vision for the future. Those leaders, of course, are Ashraf Ghani and Abudullah Abdullah, just sworn in a couple of months ago. It was also a chance for Western governments to affirm their ongoing support for Afghanistan, even as thousands of U.S. and British troops leave the country. So here was Secretary of State John Kerry representing the U.S., saying Afghanistan has made tremendous progress in the last decade.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: My friends, we have a government in Kabul that merits our confidence and our support. And never before has the prospect of a more fully independent and sustainable Afghanistan been more clear than it is at this moment as we assemble here in London.

INSKEEP: That's Secretary of State John Kerry. Sean Carberry, let's fact-check that a little bit. Does this government in Kabul merit confidence? And is there a clear prospect for an independent, sustainable Afghanistan?

CARBERRY: Well, certainly Ashraf Ghani merits confidence. He's a highly educated, skilled technocrat with very strong ideas about reforming the country. The problem is they have this national unity government where there is some power-sharing between him and Abdullah Abdullah, and that's slowing things down and raising a lot of questions about what they will be able to accomplish. So far they've been in power for more than two months and have yet to announce new Cabinet ministers. And they've had difficulty even determining the process for selecting the Cabinet ministers, so a lot of obstacles.

They're up against a very entrenched corrupt system with very weak institutions and strong patronage networks. And in terms of the sustainability of the country - still has no real economic foundation and relies on the international community for 70 percent or so of its budget, so any type of independent, sustainable Afghanistan is years, if not decades, away.

INSKEEP: Well, let's bring Ari Shapiro back here because you talked, Sean, about a government that is having some trouble. Ari, what about the people outside the government, the civil society groups who agitate for government transparency or improvement in quality of life like health and education?

SHAPIRO: Yeah, this conference really emphasized them. About 50 came from Afghanistan to speak to the government, to speak to the international community. And I met with some of them. They expressed a lot of hope and also a lot of anxiety. They're afraid the international community is not going to stay committed to their country. And they don't know just yet what to make of the new government. So, for example, here's a women's rights activist I spoke with named Sajia Behgam.

SAJIA BEHGAM: It's very early to judge the government that they're doing good or bad. They want to work with the people. They want to develop the countries and improve on lots of challenges we have. But still, there are challenges because we see there's lots of explosions happening after the new government took over.

INSKEEP: Sean, as you know very well, there have been a lot of explosions in Kabul.

CARBERRY: Yes, November was a particularly violent month in the city - appeared to be a record number of suicide attacks in the city. And indications are that the Taliban are going to continue to try to press that and attack both Afghan government and foreign targets, whether that's the foreign military or even foreign civilians, some of whom were killed in violence in Kabul last month.

INSKEEP: Sean Carberry, our listeners will know you're wrapping up several years covering Afghanistan. Is this country in better shape now than it was when you arrived?

CARBERRY: Nominally it is. And a lot of the hope is with President Ashraf Ghani in place now - again, someone who's a highly skilled technocrat who wants to bring reforms. But the security situation is still very alarming, very concerning and by no means a guarantee that the Afghan forces will be able to main security going forward.

INSKEEP: NPR's Sean Carberry covers Afghanistan, and NPR's Ari Shapiro just finished covering an Afghanistan donor's conference in London. Thanks to you both, gentlemen.

SHAPIRO: Great to talk with you.

CARBERRY: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.