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Update No: 082 - (26/09/08)

Too early for congratulations?
Following the resignation of Musharraf and the election of Zardari to the Pakistani presidency, relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan seemed to be improving noticeably. The visit of Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Kayani, to Kabul in August was seen as a positive development, although in reality it had been planned well before Musharraf’s departure. As Zardari was taking the oath of office, the presidents of the two countries exchanged expressions of friendship and hinted that the days of confrontation were over. So far, there is no clear indication of what the new friendship will be about. 

The first decision of the Pakistan’s civilian government to affect Afghanistan was a negative one: the increase in custom rates with Afghanistan from 2% to 15%, effectively making Afghan exports no longer competitive. Judging from what is going on in Pakistan, the civilian government is unlikely to be able to succeed in controlling the situation at the border, or to impose its views on the army. During August-September cross border infiltration by militants was at an all time high.

Depressed mood in Kabul
Civilian casualties were once again a major issue in Afghanistan in September, after a major incident in Shindand district, near the border with Iran, in which up to 90 civilians perished. The denial of ISAF was challenged by international organisations. As a result, several other minor incidents, usually routine in this kind of war, received unprecedented attention in the local and international media. At the same time the insurgents are clearly improving their military skills, expanding their area of operation and reducing their casualties. There are also indications, difficult to verify, that their recruitment efforts are increasingly successful. By contrast, the mood in ISAF and in the western diplomatic corps is as depressed as ever; the war is going badly, despite all the additional resources which have been pumped in. 

The British are in a particularly difficult position, as their row with Karzai, which seemed to have been settled last year, is now raging again. Karzai accuses the British of continuing their policy of separate negotiations with the insurgents; the British criticise Karzai and his government for its disfunctionalities and corruption. Karzai is now trying to bring his old crony, the former governor of Helmand, back in power. The British, who imposed his removal as a precondition for their deployment, are furious and Gordon Brown himself is reported to have threatened the withdrawal from Helmand in the event that the old governor goes back. Brown fears the political backlash deriving from losing men and spending resources to defend such a notorious drug baron. In general, however, Karzai seems to have understood well that verbal sniping at the foreigners brings some cheap popularity at home. Moreover, he probably believes that the foreigners, now having committed so heavily to Afghanistan, will not leave anyway. 

Winter in the dark
As winter gets closer, the rise in the price of heating fuels, driven by the higher price of oil, is yet another factor which fuels social discontent. Electricity consumption also goes up sharply in winter, as some people use electricity heaters and days get shorter. The Minister of Energy is asking for an additional US$207 million to power the generators of the capital for the coming six months, as low precipitations last winter are now impacting on the generation of hydropower. His move seems more like an attempt to shift the blame onto the cabinet as a whole, as such an amount of money represents a large chunk of the total budget. The Minister is under pressure now, because he failed to deliver on his promise of delivering at least 8 hours of electricity per day to Kabul homes during the month of Ramadan.

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