KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghanistan remains one of the world's least-developed countries, the United Nations said Monday, warning that the nation which harbored al-Qaida terrorists until 2001 could fail again unless more is done to lift it from poverty.
In a new report examining Afghans' security, welfare and ability to control their own lives, the world body ranked the country 173rd out of 178 surveyed, with only five states in sub-Saharan Africa faring worse.
While landmark October elections showed Afghanistan's political progress, the report urged President Hamid Karzai and his international backers to redouble their efforts to tackle miserable health and education standards, as well as growing inequality which could fuel fresh conflict.
``Sustained peace in Afghanistan is not guaranteed despite the early successes in state-building,'' it said. ``The price the international community would pay to protect itself from Afghanistan would be far greater than what it will pay to help develop the country.''
Karzai wrote the forward for the study, saying it would help craft better policy.
``Curbing corruption, bringing reconstruction gains to all regions of Afghanistan, drawing in foreign investment in a secure involvement and opening up the political process to participation remain the top priorities,'' Karzai wrote. ``As the country now turns a new leaf, our ambition is to give hope to each and every Afghan.''
The 288-page report by the United Nations Development Program paints a mixed picture of the country's re-emergence since U.S. forces drove out the former ruling Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden in late 2001.
On the plus side, Afghanistan's economy is booming, growing at least 25 percent annually since then and expected to expand by at least 10 percent a year in the next decade. Some 4 million children have enrolled in school -- more than ever before -- and more than 3 million people forced from their homes have returned, most from Pakistan and Iran.
However, it still has the worst education system in the world, according to the U.N. calculations, which points out that nearly three-quarters of all adult Afghans are illiterate and few girls go to school at all in many provinces.
Moreover, most of the country's income is being mopped up by warlords with strong political and military connections, creating a dangerous gap between rich and poor and between the cities and the countryside. Half of all Afghans are poor, it said.
As a result, the average life expectancy for an Afghan is 44.5 years, 20 years less than in neighboring countries; one Afghan woman dies in pregnancy every 30 minutes and the country is the world leader in infant deaths caused by contaminated water.
``Our team found the overwhelming majority of people hold a sense of pessimism and fear that reconstruction is bypassing them,'' said Daud Saba, one of the report's authors.
The report was also critical of the U.S.-led military engagement in Afghanistan, saying it helped produce a climate of ``fear, intimidation, terror and lawlessness'' and neglected the longer-term threat to security posed by inequality and injustice.
It also described reconstruction projects sponsored by the U.S. military as ``inadequate and dangerous,'' echoing concern from some relief groups that they have blurred the lines between soldiers and civilians, and made aid workers into militant targets.
Still, it stressed the need for Afghanistan to develop its own national army and police -- two projects which the United States is trying to accelerate -- and proceed with a belated U.N. disarmament drive for factional militias.
The U.N. report also urged Karzai to back calls from human rights groups for a reconciliation process to address the crimes of the past.
Officials from Canada, which sponsored the new report, and the World Bank said donors needed to balance big-ticket infrastructure such as dams with projects providing jobs for the poorest.
Canadian Ambassador Christopher Alexander said hundreds of deaths linked to Afghanistan's harshest winter in years exposed both Afghans' vulnerability and the weakness of their government.
``Let us all rededicate ourselves to tackling the challenge of poverty in Afghanistan head-on to ensure no Afghan is left behind,'' he said.
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