KABUL, March 17: US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was here on Wednesday for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, promised a 'long haul' and assured his Afghan hosts that "we will be here".

"The United States is in this for the long haul. They (the Afghans) don't have to hope we will be here. We will be here," he said. Mr Powell announced a doubling of the US aid for Kabul and urged Afghan women to take part in the country's first post-Taliban polls set for June.

The hunt for Osama bin Laden and fighters from his Al Qaeda network, plus their Taliban allies, was high on the agenda during Powell-Karzai meeting. Noting 'lots of progress' in rebuilding the war-torn state since he last visited Afghanistan in January 2002, the secretary said the United States would spend $2.2 billion in aid this year.

Mr Powell revealed Washington had set aside an extra $1 billion in aid for 2004, doubling President George W. Bush's earlier pledge for this year. The new pledge would be made at the international donors' conference starting in Berlin on March 31.

"The United States will make another significant contribution at that conference, another billion dollars on top of the 1.2 billion dollars we have already committed," he said.

"So this year it will be 2.2 billion dollars." Top donors, including Britain, Germany and Japan as well as the US, are expected to pledge a combined total of $9 billion at the two-day conference. However, the sum is far short of the $27.5 billion Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani said was needed to rebuild over the next seven years. With Afghans preparing for their first presidential and parliamentary elections since the fall of the Taliban, Mr Powell waded into efforts to encourage women to register to vote.

Of the 1.5 million voters who have registered since the process began in January, only 28 per cent of them are women - although in some areas the rate is as high as 43pc.

Visiting a voter registration centre at a girls' high school, which had been closed by the Taliban, Mr Powell urged Afghan women to exercise their democratic rights.

"It's particularly impressive to see women coming out, women coming out in numbers. This is an exercise in democracy," he declared. Heavily-armed Afghan soldiers and police and US marines lined the capital's streets as Mr Powell's motorcade whizzed him from the airport to the registration centre and on to the presidential palace for 45-minute talks and a working lunch with President Karzai.

Mr Karzai echoed the concern of many observers when he said the polls might be delayed beyond their June schedule possibly until August. The sluggish pace of voter registration, largely delayed by insecurity in southern areas, has seen only one-tenth of the estimated 10.5 million eligible voters registered so far. "If (voter registration) is done on time by the United Nations, the Afghan government is keen to have elections in June, July or in August depending on the preparations," Mr Karzai said.

"The intention is to have the elections on time, (both) presidential and parliamentary. "At this time, it looks like we should be aiming for elections in mid-summer of 2004," Mr Karzai said.

WANA ACTION: Mr Powell praised Pakistan for its latest raid against suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives hiding along its rugged northwest border with Afghanistan.

"The action suggests that they have picked up the pace," Mr Powell told reporters during a visit to Kabul. "We have been doing everything we can to encourage Pakistani leaders, especially President Musharraf, to be more active (in patrolling the border and preventing infiltrations by militants.)"-Agencies

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