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Update No: 083 - (22/10/08)

A reshuffle, finally
After many rumours and much hesitation, President Karzai actually changed some of his ministers in October. The most significant shift was the replacement of the Minister of Interior, Zarar Moqbel, who was appointed Minister of Refugees, a politically rather insignificant position, albeit one which still offers room for skimming international aid. His successor, minister of Education Hanif Atmar, is considered one of the leading reformist figures and en joys widespread support and respect among Afghanistan’s international partners. He had been offered the position in the past, but had refused it. It is not clear what motivated him to accept it this time, given that elections are scheduled for 2009 and that he will not have much time to make a major impact. It is known, however, that he was under heavy pressure to accept. Some observers believe that the appointment might be a move of Karzai to simultaneously appease his Western critics, who have long been clamouring for the selection of a less corrupt and more efficient minister of interior, and eliminate a potential future rival by setting him up for almost certain failure. Another significant cabinet change was the transfer of Farouq Wardak, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, to Education. Although the Ministry of Education is per se much better resourced and funded than Parliamentary Affairs, the move also signals Wardak’s ouster from the Presidential Palace, where he had been able to wield huge influence by controlling access to Karzai’s appointments, creating a powerful network and cronies throughout the country. The changes are still subject to the approval of the parliament and the failure to replace Defence Minister Rahim Wardak is likely to generate criticism: at present both security ministries are in the hands of Pashtuns.

Shadows on Karzai’s campaign
Karzai’s campaign for re-election had good and bad moments in October. The decision of the Americans to release funds for the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, which is now widely seen as a tool in Karzai’s campaign, greatly facilitates Karzai’s campaign. However, press reports about the involvement of one of his brothers in drugs smuggling have seriously damaged him, not least because it is believed that the information was leaked by US embassy staff. This is taken by some as an indication that American support for Karzai might not extend to the next Administration in Washington, a fact that might drive many current supporters of the President towards the opposition camp. The Saudi government has decided to finally intervene in regional diplomacy and is now sponsoring talks between the Afghan government and the armed opposition; talks occurred in Mecca in September, but20they were very preliminary. Neither side has significantly altered their negotiating positions yet, which are mutually exclusive.

Promises and dreams
On the economic side, some more important infrastructural projects are nearing completion, including Afghanistan’s first railway on the Iranian border. Another railway is planned in the north. The UAE government recently announced plans to invest US$4 billion in Afghanistan, in particular building a new town, but also investing in the construction, power and mineral sectors. The announcement seems to be motivated politically, as Gulf countries are increasingly worried by the trends emerging in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a country with which they have strong relations. Hopefully these commitments will prove more serious than those made by some of Afghanistan’s neighbours. While the Afghan government remains very committed to the project of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through its territory, new doubts arise over the project all the time. Turkmenistan’s gas production fell 10 billion cubic metres short of their target in 2007 and it has already committed its planned production up to 2030 to existing pipelines. However, the news (this issue) from TURKMENISTAN, of the proof of a massive gas field by independent auditors, will reinvigorate all those in India and Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan who stand behind this project. Common sense says that the problems that remain of building a vulnerable pipeline through warring areas of Afghanistan and tribal Pakistan are immense, and the question will be whether investors can be found to take risks of this magnitude.

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