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Concerns About Afghanistan's Stability Hinders Aid Efforts - 2002-04-09

The Afghan interim government is holding a meeting in Kabul Wednesday with representatives from donor nations and international aid agencies to discuss how to implement the development projects needed to rebuild the country. It is the first such meeting since the international community pledged to donate billions at a conference in Tokyo in January. But the worsening security situation in Afghanistan is hindering efforts to turn pledges into real commitments.

The Afghan government says the purpose of the meeting is to urge donor nations and aid agencies to quickly begin funding a series of programs and projects the interim administration have identified as national priorities.

The executive director of the Afghan Assistance Coordination Authority, Ashraf Ghani, notes that Afghans have high hopes and expectations that their houses, schools, hospitals, and roads - devastated during 23 years of war and four years of drought - will be rebuilt soon.

"The key goal of this administration is to improve the lives of the ordinary Afghan - girls and boys, men and women - regardless of which part of the country they live in, regardless of which language they speak, regardless of their past history," said Mr. Ghani.

For the past several months, the interim government of Chairman Hamid Karzai has become increasingly frustrated with the pace of foreign aid money being released to Afghanistan. Of the $1.8 billion pledged at the Tokyo conference for this year, only a fraction has been dispersed.

Most of that had to be spent on emergency food and refugee assistance. There has been little money left over to spend on improving health care, utilities, housing, sanitation, roads, and other priorities. The Karzai administration is worried that any further delays in getting funds could quickly turn hopes into public anger and disappointment.

"We hope there will be a substantial movement forward to translate our vision and our plans into concrete actions," said Ashraf Ghani.

One of the biggest problems the Afghan government is dealing with is getting donor countries to cut through the bureaucracy in their own countries so that the funds can be released quickly. The government is also aware that there is a strong reluctance among many donor nations to release large amounts of money until measures are put into place to keep track of spending.

But the government admits its efforts to move forward with reconstruction is being stymied most of all by donor concerns about the persistent insecurity and instability in many parts of Afghanistan.

Causing even more concern, a bomb exploded Monday in the eastern city of Jalalabad - nearly hitting the vehicle carrying the interim government's defense minister, Mohammed Fahim.

On Sunday, a spokesman for the international peacekeeping force in Kabul - known as I-SAF - told reporters that two Chinese-made rockets were fired in the direction of an I-SAF compound. Both rockets landed harmlessly, but intelligence sources believe opponents of the loya jirga, or council of tribal leaders due to select a new government in June, were behind the attack.

Outside of Kabul, tribal violence continues unabated. For several months, ethnic Pashtuns living in northern Afghanistan have been fleeing toward Pakistan, claiming that ethnic Tajik and Uzbek commanders are engaged in ethnic cleansing of the area. Ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks largely made up the Northern Alliance, which defeated the Pashtun-dominated Taleban in the U.S.-led war in November.

Factional fighting, too, has been on the increase. On Tuesday, Afghan refugees in southern Iran, trying to return home for the first time since the end of the war, were stopped at the border by United Nations officials because of heavy fighting in the area.

The government's finance minister, Hedayat Amin-Arsala, admits the security situation remains volatile. But he insists the government cannot bring peace to this war-torn land until the people are first given incentives like jobs and decent housing.

"Small issues here and there will happen, I suppose. What is critical is that we need to revive the economy and start the process of reconstruction," he said. "Unless we start the process of reconstruction and do something about the economy, these pockets of instability will be there."

On Tuesday, the World Bank agreed to give an immediate $10 million emergency grant to the interim administration. The money will be spent establishing an infrastructure in key public administration areas so they can manage the flow of funds with the efficiency and transparency donors are demanding.

Government officials describe the project as the first step toward reassuring donors that despite the country's many problems, Afghanistan is determined to rebuild and join the international community.