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Update No: 105 - (26/10/10)

Negotiations: who wants them and who does not
During October ‘talks of talks’ were rife in Kabul, with clear signs that some Taliban figures finally have started talking about a political settlement and that Washington is not impeding this. Exactly who is talking and in whose name is not immediately clear, but the Haqqani network seems to be involved, apparently as a result of both CIA pressure in North Waziristan (where the Haqqanis have been suffering recently from drone raids) and Pakistani desire to force Mullah Omar to the negotiating table. Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i Islami has also been making negotiating noises recently, again inspired by the Pakistani intelligence. The position of the Quetta Taliban is not clear, but the reported release of Mullah Baradar (arrested in February), suggests that even the position of Mullah Omar may be changing, or at least that Pakistanis are operating to weaken the resistance of the Quetta Shura. On the other side, the main resistance for the moment comes from the US military, who fear a negotiated settlement might end up being perceived as a substantial US defeat. ISAF’s claims of military gains on the ground have been reinvigorated recently; once again it is claimed that the Kandahar offensive is ‘routing’ the Taliban. Unfortunately, any half decent guerrilla commanders knows better than to confront NATO’s massive firepower by standing and fighting, so the ‘routing’ does not actually mean much of military substance. The debate among Americans revolves around the role and residual importance of Al Qaida: some argue that Al Qaida remains important in the insurgency (the US military), while others (the politicians) argue that it is now marginal. Although it is not usually directly stated, the implications are that the fight is not over yet (the military), or that it is time to think of how to disengage (the Administration). On the ground, there is little evidence of the Taliban being interested in anything looking like a surrender: the few who are accepting the government’s offer of reconciliation and reintegration come from the fringes of the insurgency, areas only marginally affected where the Taliban mainly recruit opportunistic elements.

Fewer poppies but dearer
In the background the Afghan economy trails on; in fact it is doing quite well out of massive foreign aid and of illegal trades. This year UNODC figures estimate a 50% drop in the poppy harvest, but because prices have gone up dramatically as a result so that the value of production at farm gate prices rose by 30%. For the farmers it is good news. ISAF and US sources have claimed that the Taliban have been hurt by the drop in production, as they were relying on taxing the harvest to fund the insurgency, but given the increase in prices it is hard to see how this might be the case. The planted area has not shrunk at all and the drop in production is due to a plant illness. In other words efforts to eradicate or discourage production had no impact whatsoever.

As long as there is demand, the shadow sector of the Afghan economy is always going to do well; the same is not true of the legal sector. MCC, the Chinese company which is developing the Aynak copper mine, has announced that the start of operations has been delayed. The project has already been affected by the insecurity of the area, which has prevented the building of a planned railway and forces reliance on more expensive motor transport, which gets taxed by insurgents and police. Now the problem is that the local population want to get jobs from the mine, but need extensive training before being employable at all. Aynak is supposed to represent a major boost to the revenue of the Afghan government once it comes online. 

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