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Update No: 097 - (25/02/10)

After London
The London Conference at the end of January did not see the bashing of President Karzai that western diplomacies seemed bent on, although Karzai was warned by the donors that they would not fund the forthcoming parliamentary elections unless the systems undergoes a substantial reform. In principle, the donors have promised a further US$3.6 billion for the reconstruction of Afghanistan over the three coming years, a 32% increase over the previous three years. They also promised US$500 million for the reintegration of Taliban combatants ‘giving up the gun’, which is now the talk of the town. Karzai is focusing his political campaign over the issue of reconciliation; he achieved the de-listing of five Taliban figures already reconciled with the government from the UN list of proscribed Taliban leaders and is now seemingly accelerating the curse of reconciliation compared to what Washington thinks is desirable: he talks of involving the Taliban leadership in negotiations, but this is too early for Washington, which amongst other things has to convince a hostile public opinion in the US.

A brother behind bars
Observers were almost universally surprised by the arrest in Karachi of the operational chief of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Baradar (‘Brother’). Mullah Omar’s avowed successor. Baradar is the highest ranking catch by the Pakistani intelligence since 2001. Pakistani and American sources converge in attributing the decision to arrest him to months of very strong pressure from Washington. Two other relatively high rank Afghan Taliban were caught at about the same time. Now the question being asked by everybody is: is this the beginning of a determined campaign to hunt down Taliban leaders across Taliban territory or just a one off token arrest? Increasingly dependent on Washington aid, Islamabad might have decided that it needed to appease the Americans to an extent; it might also be that the Pakistani services, faced with the possibility of unilateral American actions (such as physical elimination) decided to opt for the lesser evil and detain Baradar. A third possibility is that the Pakistanis might have decided to hasten the pace of talks between Taliban and Afghan government, hoping for a positive fall out of successful talks on their side of the border. Holding one of the highest ranking Taliban leaders means that talks can now easily take place at the highest levels which must create a quandary for his interrogators, as to how hard/soft his interrogations can be?. However, there is informed opinion that believes that the Taliban at its most senior levels is not biddable, being motivated entirely by die-hard religious conviction (and believing that they are winning). It is at the lower perhaps tribal level where Taliban fighters can more likely be bought off for a time for local peace. (it used to be called ‘danegeld’ in medieval Europe.

Karzai-US: uneasiness follows the end of a love story
The messages coming from Washington concerning Karzai are not fully reassuring for the embattled Afghan President. When American Special Envoy Holbrooke says that there is more to Afghanistan than Karzai, he seems to hint a desire to reduce Karzai’s role. The battles of the spring and summer, pitting Karzai against American diplomats are over, but the trust is gone. Washington is still divided between alternative options concerning Afghanistan: at the Department of State Clinton still argues that the US have to hang on to an idea of ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan, which means elections, women’s rights and the like. Obama, Vice-President Biden, the Pentagon and the CIA are all more inclined to seek a settlement which protects their geopolitical and strategic interests and forget about the rest. However, signals however uncertain, are slowly emerging that Clinton is gradually losing ground: Americans, Pakistanis and Saudis are converging towards some kind of idea of a deal with the Taliban, and that the Taliban leadership itself is not uninterested.

Will get worse before it gets better
With the American troops surge still going on, and more and more money being pumped into the country, it is likely that throughout 2010 violence will continue to escalate. The Taliban send messages through their raids in Kabul that there is plenty of room for them to strike wider, in a sense reminding their enemies that after all, they have been relatively well behaved so far, considering how civil wars and insurgencies go. Certainly the expectation among Afghans at large is for worse to come. Significantly, last year just 54,000 refugees have returned to Afghanistan from Iran and Afghanistan, the lowest number since 2001. There are no statistics concerning how many have crossed the border in the other direction, but they are very likely more. 2009 thus is the first year of the post-2001 phase which sees ‘exits’ from Afghanistan exceeding ‘entries’.

 

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