Afghanistan Reconstruction To Cost Billions

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

London ( - The reconstruction of Afghanistan's political and economic systems after the end of military action will cost billions of dollars, far in excess of any rebuilding project ever undertaken, according to a World Bank report issued this week.

The bank declined to put an exact price tag on the recovery effort, but said that Afghanistan would cost much more than recent international reconstruction projects.

"In West Bank/Gaza, population less than two million, a total of $3 billion of reconstruction assistance was proposed in the first two years," the report says. "In Bosnia, population five million, total pledges for humanitarian relief and reconstruction were $5.4 billion during 1995-1999."

By comparison, Afghanistan has an estimated population of 18-20 million within its borders, plus another 7 million living outside the country as refugees or immigrants. The report emphasizes that merely restoring the country to the condition it was in before the Soviet invasion of the 1980s would be disastrous.

"Afghanistan, which has always been at the bottom of the poverty and social indicator rankings of countries, now must be considered the poorest, most miserable state on earth," the report reads.

The bank estimates that clearance of mines and unexploded ordinance from the country will alone cost $500 million.

"Reconstruction cannot be separated from the longer-term economic and social development of Afghanistan," said William Byrd, the bank's country manager for Afghanistan.

"Services like education and health never reached most of the population before the 1979 Soviet invasion, and agricultural production will have to support a considerably larger population than before," he said. "Roads and other infrastructure services will need to reach towns and communities that have always been cut off from the cities and main roads."

Brigitte Granville, head of the international economics program at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, said while the report shows resolve, past experience has shown that turning promises on behalf of the international community into action on the ground is difficult.

"The main problem with international aid and programs of this type is that countries are quick in committing and slow in implementing," Granville said by phone Friday. "For instance, reconstruction plans in Eastern Europe were only very slowly implemented."

Business must play a part in the reconstruction of the country, she said. The report notes that exiled Afghan businessmen and "private sector capacity" in neighboring countries must be brought on board in order for the aid plan to work.

"The reconstruction plans need to be integrated into a global approach," involving both public and private entities, Granville said. "Trade is more important than aid."

The World Bank's report came in advance of a three-day conference to be held later this month in Islamabad, Pakistan. Aid workers, World Bank officials and exiled Afghans will discuss the report and the prospects for the country's future at the conference.

The bank envisions an external "trust fund" being set up by the international community to siphon money into a special Afghan government "reconstruction agency."

Granville said that far from coming too early, the reconstruction plans are a good idea, even as Western leaders warn about a lengthy military conflict.

"This is quite a positive step," she said. "Usually these things are much slower in being formulated. It's much better that they are planning right now."