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World pledges $4.5 billion to Afghan rebuild

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TOKYO — Interim Afghanistan leader Hamid Karzai left Tuesday with $4.5 billion in international aid pledges, but only after he pledged to make sure the money gets spent where it's needed most.

The total aid package is less than half of the five-year goal set by the United Nations, but the first-year installment of $1.8 billion exceeds Afghanistan's expected needs. The remaining $2.7 billion will be disbursed over the next several years.

Nearly 60 nations attended the two-day conference on rebuilding Afghanistan.

Karzai said Tuesday he couldn't wait to tell the Afghani people "the good news." He also urged international donors to deliver the first installments "immediately in the coming days so we can begin the process of reconstruction."

After decades of war and strife, Afghanistan is beginning reconstruction nearly from scratch.

The immediate funding priorities include paying the new administration's bills, providing education — especially for girls, ensuring health services and rebuilding the battle-scarred infrastructure.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn called Tuesday's pledges "a very, very good start," but conference participants said the next task is ensuring that the aid is speedily and securely disbursed.

"None of us thinks it's a utopia, and we all know that it's going to be tough to make sure that the money gets to the place that it should go," Wolfensohn said.

"But I think with a proper transparent system, with a lot of auditing, with accounting, there's a fair chance that we'll get most of the money where it's supposed to go."

Last Thursday's looting of a warehouse full of humanitarian supplies in Afghanistan underlined concerns about accountability and security. The incident was the second time in three days that armed men had pilfered aid supplies.

European Commissioner for External Relations Christopher Patten agreed that the conference was a step in the right direction, but added that deals were far from sealed.

"It's extremely important that we work very quickly to translate promises made on paper to real checks, real projects, real actions on the ground," Patten said.

Karzai stressed his commitment to accountability and assured delegates that his post-Taliban government was committed to free-market policies, advancing human rights and wiping out terrorism.

The $4.5 billion in pledges fell short of the five-year, $10 billion goal set by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The U.N. Development Program estimates that $15 billion is needed over the next 10 years to rebuild Afghanistan's infrastructure.

The largest pledges were the European Union's $500 million for this year, Iran's $500 million over five years, Japan's $500 million over 2 1/2 years, the United States' $296 million for this year and Saudi Arabia's $220 million over three years.

Long-term prospects for aid were still unclear Tuesday, mainly because most of the big donors did not make a pledge spanning more than three years.

Congressional budgetary procedures prevent the United States from extending its pledge past this fiscal year, which ends in September.

Countries can pledge more later, but some aid organizations worried that commitments would fade after Afghanistan gradually drops from the headlines.

"We're relatively satisfied with the figures. But if you see the level of destruction in Afghanistan, it's probably not enough," said Sarwar Hussaini of the Cooperation Center for Afghanistan, a Kabul-based human rights group.

The central bank was looted in the last days of the ousted Taliban regime, and government employees have not been paid for months. About two-thirds of the adults in Afghanistan are illiterate, and nearly 3,000 people are maimed by land mines there every year.

On the political level, the Tokyo meeting was a crucial opportunity for Karzai to build his own stature. Karzai is expected to further shore up support by visiting Beijing and by meeting President Bush in Washington.