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Update No: 037 - (01/01/05)

The new cabinet: still waiting
President Karzai's formal inauguration took place on 7 December, but he continued to elude expectations that he would promptly release the list of ministers in the new cabinet. Reportedly he has been so far unable to satisfy all parties involved, not least because despite his own declarations that the new cabinet will not be a coalition one, he is trying to appease most if not all factions. In particular, the powerful Panjshiri group resist its own demise and insists that at least one key ministry should be left in their hands. Allegedly Karzai sought to re-appoint current Defence Minister Fahim, previously indicated as almost certain to be excluded from the new cabinet, but met a barrage of objections. Many observers, both Afghan and not, were also worried by the insistent rumours that the former governor of Herat, Ismail Khan, was being offered the post of Minister of Interior, but the chances of this happening appeared to be receding by the second week of December. Discussions have been held with another of the best known "warlords", Rashid Dostum, concerning his appointment as chief of staff of the army. Although Karzai appears inclined to have him on board, other powerful players are vetoing the appointment, among them current chief of staff Bismillah Khan. There is also pressure to replace a number of current ministers, on the basis of allegations of misconduct and incompetence. This is the case of the Ministers of Transport, Commerce and Civil Aviation. The latter example is possibly the most extreme: the national airline, Ariana, is at the centre of a big scandal, with million of dollars having allegedly disappeared in a chaotic situation where the management never managed to put together anything resembling a budget. 

Foreign policy on the move again
For the first time in many months the foreign policy environment of Afghanistan appears to be shifting significantly. Alarmed by the rumours concerning cabinet changes, which would imply a major weakening of what used to be known as the "Northern Alliance", the governments of India and (much more loudly) of Russia have expressed their concerns about a trend which might end up bringing back to government elements of their sworn enemies, the Taleban, at the expense of their allies. US ambassador Khalilzad announced in December that the Bush Administration is in favour of a deal with moderate elements of the Taleban, a move clearly meant to prepare the ground for some major development. Discussions with the Taleban have been going on for a long time and now Karzai, newly legitimised by a clear electoral majority, might be ready for signing an otherwise highly controversial deal. Although officially the deal would only allow Taleban elements to form legal political parties and therefore join the mainstream political life, it is believed that in fact a number of individuals close to the Taleban and to Pakistan would join the cabinet at some stage. The Russian Foreign Minister attempted to lobby on behalf of his Afghan allies (the Panjshiri group) and rather clumsily so, obtaining only a sharp rebuff from Kabul. There are however indications that the Russians themselves are convinced that the influence of the Panjshiris is in decline and that at most it will only be possible to limit the damage. Allegedly the Russians started cultivating other political groups based in the northern part of the country in order to prepare an at least partial alternative to the Panjshiris, should the influence and power of the latter collapse altogether in the forthcoming months. 

Bumper year for the poppies
During November the US government released its own estimates of opium production in Afghanistan, which turned out to be much more pessimistic than the estimates produced not long earlier by the UN. The US estimate a 75% increase over the previous year, with a US$2.8 billion turnover, which would correspond to 60% of the Afghan GDP. This new estimate might have contributed to new sense of urgency which could be sensed in Kabul towards the end of the year with regard to the issue of opium. Reportedly planes started spraying the opium crops in the eastern part of the country over the last month or two. The US government appears now determined to intensify the poppy eradication effort and is taking the place of Britain as the leading donor in this field, having committed about US$750 million for the coming year. 
Between November and December of issue of the gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan resurfaced in the news. The technical study carried out by the ADB has been completed and the debate is now focusing on the issue of how to ensure the security of the pipeline, especially in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and on the involvement of India in the project. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the impact of the project (if ever implemented) would be immense. The plan envisages the construction of a railway alongside the pipeline, the delivery of electricity and the building of roads in the areas crossed by the pipeline, which would also benefit from the distribution of free gas.
 

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