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Afghanistan: UN Working With Government In Advance Of Tokyo Aid Conference

Representatives of more than 50 countries will gather in Tokyo on 21-22 January for a donors conference expected to raise as much as $9 billion to help rebuild Afghanistan. In the days before the conference, the United Nations is working to help the Afghan interim administration prove to potential donors that the situation is improving and that any money pledged will not be wasted. From printing ID cards for the police to issuing gun permits, the UN is doing everything it can to ensure a smooth transition to a civil society in Afghanistan.

Kabul, 17 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A frantic race is underway in Kabul, as officials from the United Nations rush to help Afghanistan's interim government make whatever small progress it can before next week's aid conference in Tokyo.

The conference may raise as much as $9 billion to help rebuild Afghanistan's devastated infrastructure over the next five years. But first, interim government officials must convince potential donors the investment is a worthy one and that their pledges will be money well spent. Afghan Prime Minister Hamid Karzai, as well as other top officials, including the country's finance and foreign ministers, will be attending the Tokyo conference.

The United Nations is aiding Afghan officials to ensure that the first few steps toward building a civil society go as smoothly and quickly as possible. They have helped print identification cards for local police and issued gun permits. They have also tackled one of the biggest practical problems facing Afghanistan today: its lack of a functional telephone system.

Together with the Ericsson telecommunications company, the UN's World Food Program (WFP) has spent the past weeks setting up a temporary mobile communications network to support the UN's humanitarian operations. UN spokesman Ahmed Fawzi called the project a unique example of private-sector initiative aiding humanitarian relief efforts.

After just three weeks of work, the system is now up and running, with the UN special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, yesterday receiving the first mobile phone connected to the special network. A total of 200 phones are now available for humanitarian aid workers and UN personnel in Kabul.

Kabul's airport, badly damaged during the U.S.-led bombing campaign, is also opening to military and humanitarian flights after being shut down for more than three months.

Until now, both the UN and troops from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had been using the dilapidated Bagram military air base some 50 kilometers north of the capital. Officials say re-opening the Kabul airport will accelerate the deployment of the UN-mandated ISAF troops. To date, ISAF has deployed 1,450 soldiers out of a total force of some 4,500.

On 15 January, the UN lifted its flight ban on Afghanistan, clearing the way for civilian flights to resume at Kabul airport. The country's only working commercial airliner, an Ariana Afghan Airlines plane, took a symbolic test flight over the airport.

The UN also hopes that countries pledging financial contributions to the Afghan Interim Administrative Fund (AIAF) -- also called the start-up fund -- will keep their promises. The U.S. and Canada have pledged roughly $1 million apiece, but the payments have yet to be made. The Afghan interim administration is eager to pay at least one month's salary to government employees and police officers before the Tokyo conference.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, visiting the Afghan capital today, says the U.S. will make a significant contribution to Afghan reconstruction. He will announce the specific amount at next week's conference in Tokyo.

The interim administration is also hoping to see the UN lift its Taliban-era sanctions against the country, unfreezing tens of millions of dollars that can help contribute to the rebuilding of the Afghan economy. Still another concern for both Karzai and UN envoy Brahimi is the calling of a loya jirga, or grand council of tribal elders and religious figures. The gathering, to be held in the spring, is tasked with appointing an 18-month transitional government to organize elections.

For the time being, UN and Afghan officials are working on the composition of an independent commission to establish the criteria for selecting loya jirga participants and to determine when, where, and what the agenda of the gathering will be.

According to December's Bonn agreements, the commission will have 21 members. UN spokesman Fawzi said yesterday that a shortlist for the commission is already being finalized.