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Update No: 061 - (20/12/06)

Jirga hopes and delusions
Karzai launched the idea of organising Peace Jirgas (assemblies) on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border at the end of the summer to resolve the outstanding issues between the two countries. He received President Bush's endorsement, so that President Musharraf of Pakistan also felt compelled to agree. Karzai's speeches since then seem to hint that he hopes to use the Jirgas as a tool to mobilise public opinion behind himself and against the Pakistani government both in Afghanistan and in the North-west Frontier Province of Pakistan. Pashtun Nationalist parties in the NWFP are playing with Karzai, in the hope to recover the influence which they have been losing to the Islamic parties. Although many of those attending the Jirgas will be MPs, a substantial number of tribal leaders are also likely to be invited and they are the ones who are expected to play the key role. Karzai presumably hopes to mobilise them against Pakistani interference and use Afghan nationalism to separate the more moderate supporters of the Taleban from the hard core of religious fanatics. Although some in Karzai's circle and among pro-government elements in Kabul see Pakistani agreement to call the Peace Jirgas as a success for President Karzai, Pakistani behaviour casts some doubts in this regard. The Pakistani government continued to display its self-confidence concerning Afghanistan when at the end of November the Pakistani Foreign Minister told NATO representatives in private meetings that they should accept defeat in Afghanistan and start negotiating with the Taleban. Some Pakistani officials, such as General Orakzai governor of the NWFP, openly say that the Taleban are the genuine representatives of the Afghan people. It is not clear yet when the Jirgas will take place, although Afghanistan has announced that the Jirga on its side will be called in January.

A poppy jungle
To the embarassment of NATO and the US government, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy issued in December its own estimates of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, which are even more pessimistic than those released by UNODC earlier this year. The 172,600 hectares being cultivated now represent a 61% increase over last year. Growth was up fastest in Helmand and Uruzgan, two Taleban dominated province, with 132% growth, while in the rest of Afghanistan growth was a more modest but still very high 18%. This growth happened despite 2006 being touted as the most successful year yet in terms of poppy eradication. Under US pressure, the Afghan government announced in November that in the future it will resort to air spraying as a way to fight poppy cultivation, which many fear will play in the hand of the anti-government opposition, pushing even more farmers to support it.

Something moves on the mining front
The Afghan government has announced that the name of the company which won the exploitation rights for the Ainak copper mine will be announced in early 2007. It is estimated that the mine contains 240 million tonnes of copper at 2.3%, which in theory might be worth US$30 billion. It is also hoped that the mine will create tens of thousands of jobs in the mine and in related activities. Although the government hopes that exploitation might start in 2009-10, many experts believe that it might take as long as 10 years before exploitation starts. Apart from problems related to the political instability of Afghanistan, the required initial investment of US$200 million in machinery will only happen once electricity and water will be available in sufficient quantities. The mine will need 50 megawatt of electricity, which is huge by Afghan standards. Water is also a very precious item in Afghanistan and it is already the source of many local conflicts. Moreover, the government appears to have unrealistic expectations about the level of taxation it might be able to impose on the exploiters, having talked about a 15% royalty, which foreign companies regard as way too high.
Nonetheless, the Aibak development shows that something seems to be moving on the Afghan mining front, as confirmed by another development. In December a US company (Professional Construction Services Network Nevada) announced a deal with a Russian company (Russia's Public Joint Stock Company) and two Afghan ones (GDC Construction Company and Barakat Trading Group) to become active in the Afghan oil and gas sector.

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