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Update No: 107 - (24/12/10)

Declare victory and leave, or nearly so
As winter sets in, the usual debate over the prospects of the military campaign starts, this time intensified by the Obama Administration’s review of ISAF performance in the field. The insiders say that the review will show that the surge has been successful, that therefore troop withdrawals can start from July 2011 as planned, and that the transition of responsibility to the Afghan armed forces becomes the priority. Gen. Petraeus and ISAF’as own assessment is that they have claimed some ground back from the Taliban and broken the momentum of the insurgency. They are even more upbeat about the impact of the greatly intensified campaign of targeted killing, which is undoubtedly giving the Taliban a hard time. The intelligence agencies are not quite as positive in their assessment: they say that clearly the Pakistanis have no intention to clamp down on the Taliban sanctuaries inside Pakistan; quite the contrary, the Pakistani army stood up in defence of the Haqqanis in Waziristan in October. With the sanctuaries guaranteed, any weakening of the Taliban in the field might just be temporary. The assessments of the Afghan security forces also vary widely, depending on whether they stress the fact that progress is being made or whether they point out how far they are from being really able to operate autonomously. In other words there is no real consensus on where the conflict is going in military terms; this fogginess at least allows the politicians some room of manoeuvre; declare success in order not to upset the military and then move towards disengagement, also slowly so that the military do not get too nervous. One hurdle down this road is Karzai’s growing opposition to the intensifying pace of military operations; the president is increasingly described as unreliable by his American partners, but in this case at least he has the support of Afghan public opinion.

A poisoned present from Pakistan
In his tug-of-war with the Pakistani army, President Karzai now finds on his table a public statement of the Pakistani Chief of Staff, Gen. Kayani, inviting him to reach a deal with the armed opposition. Karzai will not be pleased, because an open Pakistani sponsorship does not help selling negotiations inside Afghanistan and because Karzai would rather buy off separate pieces of the opposition rather then get the whole lot on board. The Pakistani move is clearly meant to put pressure on Washington and the Europeans; the hope is that once public opinion gets aware that there is a negotiating option on the table, avoiding to consider it seriously becomes more difficult. Moreover, The Pakistani army can show this offer as evidence of the positive role it is playing in seeking a solution to the conflict, counter-balancing the increasingly negative publicity the Pakistanis get in the western media.

Reform is good… in small doses
Some signs of the government trying to improve its performance can be seen here and there. A reform of the Mining Ministry, for example, is trying to make it more dynamic and less bureaucratised; clearly the hope is that the Ministry could manage effectively what is expected to be Afghanistan’s main source of revenue (mining and gas/oil) in the future. There is also an effort to make the ministry more transparent, in order to reassure foreign investors after the negative publicity surrounding the controversial bidding for the Ainak copper mine. To demonstrate the willingness of the President to establish a more transparent state appointment system, a new Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission has been announced. At the same time the government has dropped charges against an aide to President Karzai, who had been indicted by a US-sponsored anti-corruption task force. Mohammad Zia Salehi was released under direct orders from the President. 

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