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International Conference May Help Afghanistan Hit The Reset Button

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Do you mind if I tell you a story?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Go ahead.

INSKEEP: It's a memory, actually. I covered the war in Afghanistan in 2001, 2002.

GREENE: This was right after 9/11.

INSKEEP: Right. The Taliban were being driven from power. And I remember thinking, David, this country has a chance. Afghanistan had been through more than 20 years of war. And I thought, it now has a chance for something different. That's what I thought in 2002.

GREENE: But Afghanistan really hasn't gotten that chance.

INSKEEP: No, they got another decade of war, more than 30 years in total now. And I tell you this because again, in 2014, people are hoping Afghanistan has a chance for something different. The U.S.-led coalition is ending its involvement in formal combat operations, a new president is in place and a conference in London this week kicks off what Western leaders hope will be a decade of transition. NPR's Ari Shapiro is there.

ARI SHAPIRO: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has already made official visits to China and to Pakistan. But this conference in London is his first formal engagement with the Western donor countries that are effectively subsidizing Afghanistan right now.

MICHAEL KEATING: So it's his chance to set out his vision for the future of the country.

SHAPIRO: Michael Keating, of the Chatham House think tank, was the U.N.'s top man in Afghanistan until 2012. At this conference, he expects president Ghani to argue that Afghanistan is a rare opportunity. Unlike Syria or Ukraine, the entire international community agrees on the direction Afghanistan should go.

KEATING: Here's a chance to, as your president would put it, press the reset button.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. and other countries have invested so much money and so many lives in Afghanistan; Ghani will argue that a much smaller investment will prevent the country from sliding backwards. Still, the country needs hundreds of millions of dollars. Afghanistan does not generate enough money to sustain itself. Avinash Paliwal chairs the Afghan Studies Group at King's College London.

AVINASH PALIWAL: They basically want to show that there are many successes of this war which are worth capitalizing on and that this government can actually pull that off with support.

SHAPIRO: How difficult is that case to make? Do you think people will be persuaded of those things?

PALIWAL: No, I don't think so. (Laughter). It's a very difficult case to make. But the question then is, should we stop making that case?

SHAPIRO: This meeting comes after an unusually violent week in Kabul. A British embassy vehicle was hit along with several other targets. Those attacks cast a shadow over this gathering, which may be exactly what the bombers intended.

ANNA LARSON: To imagine that a conference could solve Afghanistan's problems would be very optimistic, to say the least.

SHAPIRO: Anna Larson spent six years working in Afghanistan. And she's now with the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She says nobody sees this conference as a cure-all, but it may be a key turning point.

LARSON: It's very important, as a symbolic gesture, to point to the new relationship between donors and the new Afghan administration.

SHAPIRO: It's also a chance for Western leaders and Afghanistan's government to hear from civil society advocates, like Frozan Mashal.

FROZAN MASHAL: We are part of this world. People should never forget us.

SHAPIRO: She's one of about 50 activists, chosen by their peers, who have been brought to this conference. They have not seen one tourist site in London. It's been back-to-back meetings and trainings. Muhammad Naeem Ahmadzai is from remote Paktia Province. He advocates for education, health and government transparency. Last year, someone blew up his car minutes before he was supposed to drive to a meeting.

Tell me why you keep doing this work even though people threaten your life, blow up your car. Why do you keep doing it?

MUHAMMAD NAEEM AHMADZAI: We don't have any other way. There is my life. There is my family. There is our community. We should work for them. If I didn't work, who will come there? This is our responsibility. And there is no other way.

SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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