Afghans Seek Boost From Pledges

KABUL, Afghanistan/WASHINGTON -- Afghanistan shifted its focus Wednesday to ways of turning aid pledges of more than $4.5 billion into tangible benefits -- security, schools and hospitals -- for a country shattered by two decades of war.

Interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai flew to Beijing to meet Chinese leaders who are wary of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan now that the Taliban militia has been defeated.

In Afghanistan, officials pledged to battle corruption amid concerns over how the billions of dollars pledged at a donor conference in Tokyo this week would be distributed. "It should be spent first on rebuilding the country, which has been completely destroyed," student Habibullah Haidari said on a busy street in central Kabul. "That way the poor innocent people who suffered in the war can get out of their misery."

Residents cynical about government promises after two decades of successive communist, Muslim rebel and fundamentalist Taliban rule said the funds should be distributed under United Nations control to ensure they do not enrich the country's leaders.

"We hope government officials won't just use this money for themselves," traffic policeman Mohammed Sharif said.

At the two-day Tokyo conference, donor countries pledged more than $4.5 billion to rebuild the country, of which $1.8 billion will be provided this year.

"We will be a Samurai against corruption," Karzai, dressed in a trademark striped robe, reassured donors.

Swift, substantial aid was seen as critical to the survival of the month-old but penniless interim administration. Karzai had told delegates from more than 60 countries and organizations he hoped to return "with my hands full" to a country where one in four children dies before the age of 5.

"I also hope that the pledges made by the international community are made true immediately," said Karzai. As he spoke, Afghan civil servants were receiving their first salary payment in six months -- $50 each.

There were strings attached to the aid package put together in Tokyo, as donors insisted the world's top opium producer take steps to eradicate its most lucrative cash crop.

Although Karzai's administration has renewed a Taliban-era ban on opium poppy production, the raw material for some two-thirds of the world's illicit heroin supply, the drug trade has remained a critical source of income for Afghan farmers. International aid workers have been struggling to help farmers switch to crops like cotton, but said it would take years to rebuild a sector that employs about eight in 10 Afghans.

"Everything has been wrecked, destroyed -- we're nowhere near where we were a quarter of a century ago," said Mohammed Murad, head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in southwest Afghanistan.

The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation said Wednesday that interrogating members of Osama bin Laden's network detained at the U.S. military base in Kandahar has prevented new attacks against U.S. targets worldwide.

"Information we have picked up since the war has prevented additional attacks around the world," Robert Mueller said.

"Interrogations from al-Qaida members detained here in Afghanistan as well as documents ... has prevented additional attacks against U.S. facilities around the world."

Mueller refused to give details on what attacks may have been prevented.