KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghanistan hopes leaders from more than 60 countries meeting in Paris on Thursday will pledge some US$15 billion to help rebuild a nation wracked by poverty and the Taliban insurgency.

But President Hamid Karzai could have a tough time convincing donors his government is ready to tackle another problem bleeding the nation: corruption.

A World Bank report released Tuesday said infighting within the government and a lack of leadership to confront graft "has resulted in the widely held view that corruption is being ignored or tacitly allowed."

The report also called for increased efforts to oust government officials connected to the drug trade in Afghanistan, which is the world's unrivalled centre of heroin production.

Yet few dispute the need to support Karzai in developing a country where continuing deep poverty wins converts or paid fighters for the Taliban insurgency.

Despite about 65,000 foreign soldiers in Afghanistan - the highest number since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled a Taliban regime in late 2001 - Karzai's western-backed administration has only a fragile grip on much of the country. The insecurity has hobbled development efforts.

Canada has about 2,500 troops involved in NATO's International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Most of the Canadian troops are in Kandahar province to fight insurgents, protect development efforts and train Afghan security forces.

David Emerson, Canada's minister of foreign affairs and international trade, will attend the Paris conference.

Canada is expected to make the improvement of the Dahla dam in the Arghandab district of Kandahar province one of its key projects over the next nine years.

Afghan officials are asking the international community for $50 billion in aid over the next five years. Their development strategy, to be unveiled in Paris, envisions a peaceful Afghanistan by 2020.

"It's important to realize that this ($50 billion) is what's needed to get, that we have to meet our needs, so we don't have to be dependent," said Ishaq Nadiri, Karzai's senior economic adviser. "And time has a cost. The more you delay the more the burden is increased on our population and perhaps the population of the world that's willing to help us."

The government is hoping donors will pledge between $15 billion and $20 billion at the conference, principally to finance the struggling farm and energy sectors as a way to boost an economy shattered by a quarter century of war. Roads are needed to transport produce to market and reliable electricity is needed to power processing plants.

The plan calls for $2.5 billion to increase the use of arable land for legal crops. A lot of Afghanistan's most fertile farmland, particularly in Helmand province, is used to grow opium poppies, offering relatively quick and easy profits for farmers.

The international community has already given Afghanistan some $15 billion in assistance since the Taliban's ouster. But most Afghans still live in mud-brick homes without proper sanitation and 80 per cent of people have no electricity.

Life expectancy remains under 50 years, and food shortages over the past year have pushed many Afghans closer to the brink. In Kabul, some people resort to second-hand bread scraps to feed their families. In isolated provinces suffering from drought, starving villagers are fleeing their communities in search of food.

French officials stress that Thursday's conference is not just about money. The conference will close with a declaration meant to guide aid strategy through 2013, including an increase in international co-ordination under the watch of UN representative Kai Eide.

Donors are stepping up demands that Afghanistan confront pervasive corruption in government. Kabul has responded by setting up an investigative body, but it remains to be seen if it works.

"We are all for transparency," said Nadiri, Karzai's adviser who also is a professor of economics at New York University. "We should have an accounting to all projects and all expenditures."

Nadiri called for more aid projects to be funnelled through the Afghan government, saying it can carry out projects for just 30 per cent of the cost of a U.S.-run project.

The Agency Co-ordinating Body for Afghan Relief, an alliance of 94 international aid groups, said in a March report that 40 per cent of the foreign aid since 2001 went back to donor countries in corporate profits and consultant salaries.

Some 80 delegations will attend Thursday's conference, from 65 countries and 15 international aid groups. Karzai, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will co-host.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and first lady Laura Bush will also attend.

Latest From ...