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Update No: 132 - (26/02/13)

Summary: Obama unveiled his plans for withdrawing from Afghanistan, but only until the end of 2013, leaving in doubt what level of long-term American presence will be there after 2014. In the meanwhile the diplomatic channels are very busy with tens of bilateral and multilateral diplomatic contacts, often not very fruitful, but something is moving on the Taliban front. Their expectations concerning a political settlement might not exactly converge with Kabulís, however.

The disappearing act
In his February speech President Obama has announced the next step of his planned disengagement from Afghanistan, saying that 34,000 US troops will leave in 2013. That would leave 32,000 of them at the beginning of 2014. The pace of handing over to the Afghan security forces has been accelerated by 12 months and as US units will now be focused on organising their withdrawal, their participation in any fighting is going to be very modest in the future. There is so much equipment to be taken out, that NATO planners have now determined that even two years will not be enough to pull everything out, so much will be left behind for the Afghans to keep. Obama has not said however how many troops will be left after 2014 and it is now likely that he will not announce a decision on this until next year. For now the accelerated American disengagement suits Karzai and his power circle: weaker foreign presence means less leverage to interfere in Karzaiís decision-making and plans. By 2015, if a deal with the Taliban will not be in place, many around Karzai might come to miss the Americans, but by then the power circle will also have finalised their retirement plans to Dubai, in case things were to take a wrong turn.

In many provinces the bulk of NATO forces have already been pulled out of their forward operating bases and moved to more central locations; the Taliban have been moving back into villages from where they had been forced out in 2009-11. The Kabul region appears to be particularly troubled and local governors have been sounding the alarm bells.

Karzai has a strategy, but will it work?
Indeed there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity around Afghanistan, with reportedly 30-40 western diplomacies involved in trying to open a communication channel with the Taliban. Most of these efforts seem to be heading nowhere, but one led by the Germans and the Americans is at least in contact with the right people in Quetta and Peshawar.

The Taliban, however, are putting forward heavy preconditions for serious talks: a negotiating tactic, or do the Taliban think they deserve to control half of Afghanistan in the event of a peaceful settlement? Even if President Karzai decided to accept Taliban demands, he would then have to bring on board a whole range of Afghan factions opposed to the Taliban, each of which would also demand its fair share of the cake.

Karzaiís plan to run a national unity candidate in 2014 is already running into trouble as Atta Mohammed, governor of the northern province of Balkh and most powerful Tajik politician in Afghanistan at the moment, seems to be getting ready to run against Karzaiís presidential candidate. If Atta were to run, he would likely attract the bulk of the Tajik vote, which is estimated at around 25% of the population.

The regional powers in the meanwhile are upping their stakes in Afghanistan. The Turkish government has reappeared on the diplomatic scene after a long lapse and has offered again to host a Taliban liaison office on its territory. There are rumours that Turkmenistan might do the same. The Chinese government has instead offered for the first time substantial aid to Kabul and will soon start training some of Afghanistanís police. The Chinese are also talking not just about investing in the extractive industry, which they already do, but also in hydropower, agriculture and construction. Intelligence sharing with Kabul is already increasing and Beijing is going to train Afghan diplomats as well.

Forecast 2013
Although the final shape of the American withdrawal is still at the debating stage, it is clear that the pace of Western withdrawal from Afghanistan is going to be faster than anticipated by most observers. American officers on the ground are communicating to their Afghan counterparts that they have to produce sound strategic and operational plans, as the Americans will not provide any back-up in the future. The Afghan Ministry of defence is pushing for an aggressive posture and wants to take over all old US bases in remote locations, but that seems a risky option, which is also not shared by Afghan field officers, who fear they cannot hold such extended lines without the Americans.

The Taliban in southern Afghanistan are in a state of internal crisis and have not yet been able to reclaim much ground despite the dramatic downsizing of ISAF presence there; this has inspired some sense of self-confidence in the upper echelons of Kabul power, that they might be able to push through without much American support. As of early 2013 the Pakistanis were sending signals that they were willing to reach a political settlement, particularly if Omar Daudzai, who has good relations with them, were to become president, as Karzai is hinting. For the moment however, the Pakistanis are also keeping good the more radical factions of the Taliban, whom they use to exert pressure and to gain diplomatic leverage. The hint is that any deal will have to make sure Pakistan sees its interests as well protected, or it might unleash the bad guys against Kabul.

The underlying economic trend is likely to be even more negative in 2013 than it was in 2012. Aggregate statistics do not show that, because investment by non-labour intensive enterprises (telecommunications, airlines, etc.) covers up the decline of contracting, which was employing hundreds of thousands of Afghans and making a few of them rich. Already now the remaining ISAF forward operating bases are largely supplied by the air, so that services of Afghan security guards (at its peak a US$2 billion business) are no longer required.

On the political front we should expect a lot of negotiations and hard bargaining as Afghan politicians try to reframe the political settlement at the roots of the current ruling coalition, in a way which might guarantee some stability after 2014. Success is not guaranteed as there are widely differing perceptions about what each faction and group is entitled to, but if Karzai were to effectively endorse Daudzai, that would be one step ahead as at least a major faction (the Islamic party) would be on board, which would not have been the case if Karzai had chosen a member of his own family.

President Karzai appears to have chosen Omar Daudzai, his chief of staff, as his anointed successor, whom he will support in the 2014 elections. Karzai has been telling foreign diplomats that he and his circle have agreed on this name as well as on the names of the two vice-presidents to appear on Daudzaiís ticket: Salauddin Rabbani, head of the Peace Council and son of late president Rabbani, and Sadiq Mudabir, head of the administration office. Daudzai has a background in the Islamic Party and seems likely to win support from the extensive networks that this party still maintains, as well as being acceptable to the Pakistani authorities, with whom he has links. As a Pashtun, he can hope to win the majority of the vote in the Pashtun belt, south of the Hindukush. Salauddin, on the other hand, has weak credibility as a leader among the ranks of the Islamic Society, which his father once led, and many will fear that he will not stand up to Daudzai and defend the interests of his mainly Tajik constituency. Karzai is trying to prevent the emergence of a strong alternative presidential candidate from the ranks of the Society; if he fails it is unlikely that Salauddin will bring in many Tajik votes. Mudabir, finally, is a conservative Hazara Shiite, whose task is to bring in the Hazara vote but has a weak public profile and no base of his own. He seems even less likely than Salauddin to bring in a lot of Hazara votes. The new presidential team is clearly a compromise, trying to square competing demands from a multitude of lobbies and groups. One lobby which gets little to appease it, is the international community Ė the presidential ticket is rather heavily weighted towards conservative, Islamist tendencies. Still, probably few in the West still care about where Afghanistan is going. ISAF will cease combat operations in spring, after which withdrawal efforts will peak up quickly. By the end of 2014 at the latest, no more than a few thousand foreign troops will be left, in a training and mentoring role. Even training and mentoring has already started to be downsized, with mentoring no longer taking place below the battalion level (which is where most patrols take place). President Obama still has not made his decision concerning troop levels after 2014 known, but it is known that he asked as usual for a range of options (maximum, medium and minimal) to the military, from which he will choose. He first was given a range of 6-15,000 troops for post-2014, but has since asked for that to be reduced and for a zero option to be added. So right now the choice is 0-3,000-6,000-9,000 foreign troops, to which the Americans (unrealistically) hope other NATO countries can add 50% (except in the case of the zero option, of course). Obama seems inclined to go for the middle way (6,000 troops), which is most defensible politically (exactly because it is a middle way). The zero option would apply if negotiations with President Karzai over the legal status of American troops in Afghanistan were to fail.

Although some of the Taliban might in the end re-open talks with Kabul, others are tightening their links with jihadist groups in the Arab world, Pakistan and Central Asia. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan has now an Afghan branch integrated with the Taliban, which recruits heavily in the Afghan north-east. The Movement has an interest in developing a territorial base in Afghanistan, in order to facilitate its ongoing efforts to infiltrate Central Asia from there.

The first phase of the military withdrawal has already led to a reduction in the number of Afghan contractors employed by the foreigners, with a negative impact in sectors of the economy. About 20% of small and medium size Afghan businesses have closed down last year, but in terms of investment, some major new ventures have more than offset these losses; the opening of two new airlines alone accounts for much of this new investment.
 

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