'Coalition must be prepared for post-Taliban era'

War on terrorism: Reconstruction
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The international community must be prepared to act quickly if the Taliban regime in Afghanistan collapses, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, warned. But he also cautioned against impatience and suggested contingency plans were being compiled to cope with a variety of scenarios.

Mr Straw told an audience at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London: "We might need to move quickly. When the end of the regime comes, it could come gradually ... or very suddenly."

Mr Straw was speaking as a new round of intensive international diplomacy was taking place, designed to secure a consensus over provisions for the future of Afghanistan.

Underlining the need for any international arrangements to have the support of Afghans, Mr Straw said: "If we have learned anything from the past 150 years of Afghan history, it is that solutions imposed on the country will not work."

He went on: "The early phase of a transition will be crucial. We should identify a number of projects which can have an immediate impact to alleviate suffering, within the first 100 days, to give credibility and legitimacy to an interim regime."

Apparently putting down a marker before talks with his American counterpart, Colin Powell, in Washington later this week, Mr Straw laid down four principles which, he said, should govern any plan for the future of Afghanistan: The future should be placed in the hands of the people of Afghanistan; the need for a global coalition to help rebuild Afghanistan; the United Nations should take the lead in the political process; there should be resources and political will to finish the job.

On the final point, Mr Straw stressed the rebuilding of Afghanistan would be costly in terms of money, time and manpower, but that it would work out cheaper than the alternative: "more terrorist atrocities, more lives lost and more economies disrupted".

Addressing calls from international aid agencies for a pause in the bombing to allow convoys into the country, Mr Straw said that he, like the Prime Minister, opposed such a move. He said he understood the concerns behind these calls, but said a "pause in the bombing would only prolong the suffering of the Afghan people. There is only one thing that can help: an end to the civil war and the start of reconstruction."

The Taliban, he said, was the main obstruction to aid deliveries, and he accused the regime of trying to tax food convoys. Mr Straw said removing the Taliban regime was not "an aim of the military action", but that if its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, would not comply with the US ultimatum to hand over Osama bin Laden, "we require sufficient change in the leadership to ensure that Afghanistan's links with international terrorism are broken".

Elaborating on the role to be played by the UN, Mr Straw said the UN had more experience of the country than any other organisation and was already running many services there. It was the only body that had the "global reach, instruments and expertise" to provide effective relief and reconstruction.