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Update No: 109 - (26/02/11)

Tightening the cordon
President Karzai believes that he needs patronage and corruption in order to keep his ruling coalition together. He might be right or not, but his practices are less and less popular in Washington. Karzai managed to stall the investigation of the US-supported Crime Task Force, but his freedom of manoeuvre is getting more and more constrained. Now the US grand jury is investigating one of Karzai’s brother, Mahmud, alleging graft, tax evasion and other illegal activities. At the same time the Kabul bank affair is back to haunt Karzai. The IMF has examined the issue and determined that the government has done too little to fix the problem to deserve the IMF’s help. Much of the foreign aid to Afghanistan is now at risk as donors are up in arms against the failure to develop any banking regulations, even after the Kabul Bank debacle. This at a time when the Afghan government is actually demanding that a larger share of external aid be channelled through the government itself, as opposed to being spent directly. Experience suggests that Karzai still has a chance of having it his way, as Afghanistan is too high a profile conflict for Washington to risk a crisis. With Holbrooke dead and Ambassador Eikenberry likely to be replaced relatively soon, the enemies of Karzai in the Department of State are weakening, while the military, more inclined to cooperate with Karzai regardless, seem stronger after the American mid-term elections. But Karzai is taking a risk, as Washington itself and its European partners might not be able to ‘sell’ the bottomless pit which the Afghan operation has been becoming, to their parliaments anymore. Karzai is also trying to convince his Western backers to support him in his on-going dispute with the parliament, but they have little appetite for this. The parliamentary elections were heavily rigged, but having accepted the process the Westerners cannot now backtrack.

The Egyptian wave has not arrived yet, but…
The political landscape is getting more complicated because Afghanistan too is getting affected by rising food prices. The ‘Egyptian wave’ has not arrived yet as the country is quite insulated from the Middle East, but demands for pay rises can already be heard among government officials and contractors. The rising oil prices will also stoke trouble. The government pay bill already exceeds its revenue by several times and can only be afforded because of external support. Fortunately for Karzai the disgruntled Members of Parliament and the failed parliamentary candidates are too busy exchanging accusations against each other, and if they do mobilise crowds these will be their relatives and kin to support their claim to a seat; there is little genuine civil society that could move against Karzai. The parliament, united against Karzai, has not even been able to agree on a parliamentary speaker yet, a fact that further reduces whatever credibility the parliament was left with. The big issue for Karzai is whether his alliance with Vice-President Fahim can hold; Fahim has been good in mobilising Tajik support behind himself, through the distribution of posts and government patronage. However, his greater than expected success in undermining support for opposition leaders like Dr. Abdullah and Qanuni is turning him and his circle into a potential danger for Karzai: the President’s ‘divide and rule’ method does not work if Fahim comes close to monopolising Tajik support. The parliamentary dispute is just one of many signals that Karzai is uneasy about Fahim’s growing influence; Karzai’s closest supporters do not spare criticism of key allies of Fahim, like Minister of Interior Bismillah Mohammadi. Few believe that the coalition and indeed the system as such could survive in the event of a Western disengagement, which instead looks more and more likely. Even if in recent months Washington has been downplaying the forthcoming downsizing of the US military contingent, the Department of Defense budget request for 2010 points at an average US troop level of 98,000, well below the current numbers.

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