Beginning yesterday, the Loya Jirga, a council of Afghan tribal elders and other influential individuals, is currently considering the proposed pact between the United States and Hamid Karzai’s government regarding the future of foreign troops in Afghanistan. While the Loya Jirga is widely expected to approve the pact, negotiations over the security arrangement have exposed the serious divides and tensions between the US and the Afghan government. Similar issues torpedoed the proposed pact between the US and Iraq, leading to the eventual withdrawal of all foreign combat troops in 2012.
The Loya Jirga consists of 2500 senior Afghan figures, including tribal elders, politicians, civil servants and NGO representatives. While its decision is not normally binding, President Karzai has announced that the security pact will only be signed if ratified by both the Loya Jirga and the Afghan parliament. The meeting will continue for four days, after which the delegates will vote. Currently, the delegates have split into many smaller sections to discuss and debate the pact. Reports from the scene suggest that while some of these debates are peaceful, others are extremely heated, and a small number of delegates have left the Loya Jirga in protest already. Nevertheless, the Loya Jirga is still expected to approve the decision, and subsequently the Afghan parliament will likely rubber stamp the pact. A rejection of the pact would likely see the complete withdrawal of ISAF forces at the end of 2014.
President Karzai appears have called the Loya Jirga in an effort to shift responsibility for the decision away from himself – the continuing presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is extremely unpopular with significant sections of the Afghan populace. Another recent move by Karzai would have the pact signed by his Presidential successor following elections next year, something else that would likely protect his own position and has strained relationships with Washington.
The whole process of negotiating and signing the pact has in fact exposed the divides between the United States and Karzai’s government. The US wanted the pact signed by the end of last month, and continues to maintain that it’s timetable requires an agreement by the end of 2013. Particularly problematic areas have included criminal jurisdiction over American troops, and the ability of ISAF forces to enter Afghan homes without consulting Afghan authorities. Karzai’s relationship with Washington overall has been extremely problematic – the President’s frequent criticism of ISAF forces and about-turns on policy have created problems, while Karzai himself has often been placed in awkward situations domestically caused by the actions of US forces, such as in causing the deaths of civilians. The President recently announced that there was “no trust” between Washington and himself.
While the Taliban has rejected the Loya Jirga, and attacked a previous one in 2011, no attacks directed against the meeting have occurred amidst extremely high security in Kabul. However, last week, a bombing directed at the compound prior to the delegate’s arrival killed ten. The security implications of the Loya Jirga are more long term – the government of Afghanistan remains reliant on foreign aid, and would find it extremely difficult to support its security apparatus if relations with Washington disintegrated. The successful signing of the security pact is a key part of preserving this relationship for the next decade.
Yesterday, October 15th, the governor of Afghanistan’s strategically crucial Logar province was assassinated as he was due to make a speech marking the holiday of Eid al-Adha. This killing is one of few major assassinations of prominent government officials this year; however it highlights the continued goal of insurgents in Afghanistan to deprive the coalition-backed government of competent officials in light of coming elections and the withdrawal of ISAF forces in 2014.
Governor Arsallah Jamal was preparing to give a speech at a mosque in Logar province, when a bomb apparently planted inside the microphone he was due to use was detonated, killing him instantly. At least 15 others were injured, 8 of whom remain in a critical condition. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, however a faction of the Taliban insurgency is almost certainly responsible.
Though Arsallah Jamal had only been appointed as governor of Logar in April, he had previously served as governor of the province of Khost, which shares a border with Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan. He was an expert in rural development, and had worked for numerous NGOs, most recently in Canada. He was a close friend of President Hamid Karzai, and managed his 2009 election campaign. Arsallah Jamal had also survived assassination attempts in the past.
The attack took place in Logar’s provincial capital, Pul-e-Alam, a mere 37 miles south of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Logar is a strategically vital province sometimes referred to as the “gate to Kabul”, lying as it does directly to the south and controlling many of the major road approaches to the capital. Insurgents have stepped up their campaign in the province this year, which has seen violence skyrocket and large swathes of Logar fall under Taliban control. Taliban control of Logar would make it far easier for them to launch attacks in Kabul.
Logar province is also the location of the world’s second biggest copper mine, Aynak, the mining rights to which were awarded to a Chinese firm in 2009. Getting the mine up and running was one of Jamal’s major priorities, and may have contributed to his death. Alternatively, Jamal also made the news recently when he revealed that the US military had recently arrested Latif Mehsud, a senior commander in the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), something else that may have made him a target.
Insurgents in Afghanistan have also waged a long running campaign targeting government officials, in hopes of reducing the ability of Hamid Karzai’s government to function. Over 1000 mid-level officials have been assassinated in the past ten years, while several high profile officials, including numerous provincial governors, have also been murdered. With the state bureaucracy and military of Afghanistan weak, the removal of competent officials, leaders and managers could have serious long-term implications on the sustainability of state institutions. Leadership of provincial governors is also regarded as a key factor in delivering next year’s presidential election.