Rebuilding amid Afghan disorder

With huge pledges in Tokyo yesterday, lack of proven ability to govern is biggest challenge to donor confidence.

From the heights of Bala Hissar, an ancient military fortress, Afghan kings once enjoyed an imposing view of the city of Kabul. Centuries of foreign invaders have laid waste to the shelled and shattered fort, which stands as a metaphor for ravaged Afghanistan. But now it's the foreigners who are extending help with a generosity unprecedented in Afghan history.

In Tokyo yesterday, international donors from 61 countries pledged nearly $4 billion to help reconstruct Afghanistan. The nation may need $15 billion over 10 years. "We must eliminate the conditions that allow terrorism to take root," said Japan's Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, announcing a pledge of $500 million over 2-1/2 years.

The leaders of the reconstruction conference - jointly chaired by Japan, the US, the European Union, and Saudi Arabia - argue that the global war on terrorism makes the case for aid to Afghanistan on a level no other country has seen since World War II. But there's a wariness in the air. The basic lack of government and proven ability to govern effectively could make it difficult to keep donor countries' faith in Afghanistan's capacity to turn a new page.

To repair such a profoundly broken country, pledging cash is only a first step. And yet there are already signs of a reluctance to make good on pledges even before the real work of rebuilding has begun.

The United Nations says that of the $20 million in start-up funds promised to Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany in December, only $8 million has come in - and even that required nagging by the UN - leaving the nascent government unable to do much more than talk about governing, much less rebuilding.

"If this administration is going to survive, it needs to pay employees and police," says Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for the UN's Special Envoy on Afghanistan. "We must turn those pledges into projects. We have often seen the international community make pledges and not come up with the cash."

Funds that have already been promised - but not delivered - are a frustrating reality for Afghan government ministers.

Amin Farhang, a Kabul-born economist and development expert was living in Germany until he agreed to become Afghanistan's interim Minister for Reconstruction. Dr. Farhang doesn't mind that he is not being paid, he said in an interview in Kabul last week before flying to Tokyo. But he wonders how long he can function without paying the staff he has "hired."

High on his priority list are projects that include renovating destroyed sections of Kabul and the shelled-out farming villages north of the capital - Afghanistan's former breadbasket. Taliban-blasted bridges need repairing. Dust bowl-dry fields need recultivating, he says, if the country is to absorb even a quarter of the 4 million refugees who have fled Afghanistan's wars.

"We've done nothing yet. These are things we've talked about and discussed," says Farhang, a modest man who moves to the edge of his bed in his hotel room so a visitor, the Minister of Justice, can have the armchair. Farhang, like many government ministers, holds meetings in his room at the Intercontinental Hotel because his ministry has no glass windows, electricity, heat, or running water.

"Right now, I don't have any budget. I don't have furniture in my office or even a cup or a teapot," he says, smiling but not joking. "Of course, it is a concern. The international community expects many things from the new interim government. But when they don't stick to what they promised, the people here will not have faith in us."

Indeed, the financial commitments expected to be made as the conference concludes today will only be the initial steps on a long road to reconstruction.

The actual level of funding to Afghanistan is likely to hinge on how US and British troops, some 4,500 international peacekeepers, and a growing pool of aid workers are treated by the local population. Aid experts look back sadly to the case of Somalia, where US soldiers, who were supposed to deliver food to a war-torn, famine-starved country, were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, dashing international sympathy. There, warlords and bandits also snatched up much of the food aid, using it to feed troops or to resell for profit.

A disturbingly similar pattern may now be appearing here, as well. Last week, two storehouses belonging to the World Food Program were looted. In a country where at least one-fifth of the population goes hungry each night, such thefts may be understandable, but should not stand, aid experts say.

The loss of food is less important that what it represents: lawlessness, and the interim government's as-yet unmet need to prove that it - not regional fiefdoms and random gunmen - is in control.

Mukesh Kapila, head of the Conflict and International Affairs Department at Britain's national aid agency, says donor countries will be searching for signs that funds and food are able to reach people in need without interference. "This will not happen without a strategic improvement in security," says Dr. Kapila, speaking in Islamabad, Pakistan, after his assessment mission to Afghanistan. "Undoubtedly, there is an uphill struggle ahead."

Donor skepticism does not come without cause. In recent years, efforts to help rebuild other countries after years of conflict - whether international or internecine - have often been a let-down. In Cambodia, for example, international peacekeepers and aid allocations failed to stop the return of political corruption and the disregard for democratic elections.

Will Afghanistan be different? Kapila says it can, by learning from the mistakes elsewhere. "In East Timor, it took a year for the first dollar to be converted into cash. That's not going to happen in Afghanistan," he says.

Getting money to Afghanistan, however, is no easy feat. There is no functioning banking system, just an unofficial network of money-changers and black market movers. The Taliban looted the central bank's vault before fleeing Kabul. Exchange rates are different in various parts of the country, and the Afghani soared in value after the Dec. 5 Bonn Agreement was signed. That means that the dollars promised to Afghanistan in Germany in December are only worth about a third to a fourth what they were a month and a half ago.

The aid that has been injected thus far is in part responsible for driving up prices of basic items, putting them out of reach of people whose incomes have not improved - if they have incomes at all.

"If you suddenly input several millions of dollars, you are injecting it in urban economies and it affects the prices of essentials," says Kapila. "We don't want to make matters worse for the majority by funding the minority."

The mere task of prioritizing will be enormous. Electricity, phone lines, fuel, sanitation, and clean water, are all in short supply or nonexistent. Then, there's demining a nation so booby-trapped that farmers are afraid to plow their fields. And the education system was practically destroyed by five years of Taliban rule. Some 1.5 million children are to return to school this March after the long winter break, but the nation's schoolteachers have not been paid in six months. Some 90 percent of Kabul University's library books were destroyed - in large part by the Taliban, who opposed subjects from science to Western literature as un-Islamic.

Sharif Faez, minister of higher education, says he is trying to hold "rehabilitation classes" for women who were kept home from class under the Taliban. But even funding for that, he said in a recent interview, had not come through.

"We're trying to get some funds to heat a few rooms so we can have some classes," says Mr. Fayez, a former literature lecturer who was living in Virginia when he got a call in December, informing him that he had been made a minister. "The UN has promised a lot, but nothing has really been provided yet."

Afghan officials say they want to make a departure from past policies of state-run economics, and allow the private sector and market forces to call the shots. That should include assistance in tapping into Afghanistan's capacity for oil production, says Haji Abdul Qadir.

Then, the country could have revenues and a tax base for him to get on with his job as minister for city planning. When he obtains a budget, Mr. Qadir hopes to spend it on basics like a sewage system, which is missing from much of Kabul.

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