The year started with another transition for Afghanistan – the Presidential Palace hosted a ceremony to mark the move of security responsibility from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces on the 1st.
But there was ongoing frustration surrounding last year’s political transition, as the weeks continued without President Ghani and CEO Abdullah agreeing their Cabinet nominees. Following protests over the delays by civil society and jokes by the Taliban, the Cabinet nominations were finally announced on the 12th. Commentators were quick to criticise names both new and old, whilst the inclusion of only three women in the 25 positions raised eyebrows. In a matter of days six nominees were removed due to having a dual nationality, a criminal conviction or not having a graduation certificate, whilst two others resigned. Some of those removed may be, or have been, reintroduced, whilst others have been replaced. On the 28th, MPs voted on nineteen of the nominations – only eight succeeded in securing their posts.
Alongside the Cabinet activities, MPs also voted on the 28th to approve amendments to four articles of the election law.
This is seen as a small step in large-scale electoral reforms needed before the Parliamentary elections this year
After a particularly bloody December, January 1st brought news of at least 26 civilian deaths at a wedding party near Taliban fighting in Helmand province. The wedding host said nine of his children were missing after a rocket fired amid fighting between Taliban and Afghan soldiers struck his house.
The month continued in that vein, with numerous attacks targeting civilians, including sixteen killed by a suicide bomb at a funeral in Laghman province. It ended on the 29th with three American contractors and a local man killed on Kabul’s airport base.
Throughout the month discussions aimed at ending the conflict continued. First Vice President Adbul Rashid Dostum was active in Northern provinces, exhorting Taliban fighters to join the peace process. Whilst some successes were noted, the Taliban rejected such claims, and the Wall Street Journal wrote that some western officials are concerned that Dostum is raising an army loyal to him.
In addition, the Pakistani press was reporting improved relations between the Afghan and Pakistani military. They claimed this was partly due to solidarity following the Army School massacre in Peshawar the previous month. After a delegation of three Pakistani politicians met with President Ghani, CEO Abdullah and head of the Afghan Peace Council, they reported on the 10th that Afghanistan and Pakistan were closing ranks to undertake joint military operations against militants in both countries.
Freedom of expression was forefront in January. On the 21st Human Rights Watch launched their report on Threats to Media Freedom in Afghanistan. They cited a report by the Afghan media advocacy organization Nai which stated that 2014 had been the most violent year on record for journalists in Afghanistan, with attacks up by 64 percent from 2013. Radio journalist Aaqel Mohammad Waqar became the first media fatality of 2015 when he was shot dead in Eastern Nangarhar province on the 16th.
Women’s access to justice was highlighted following the release of 40 prisoners from Kabul’s Women’s prison on Eid-e-Milladunnabi, the birthday of Prophet Mohammad on the 20th. Whilst celebrating their freedom, some of the women said that corruption in Afghanistan's legal and judicial institutions was to blame for their struggles to seek justice. Most of these women were imprisoned on charges of ‘immoral’ activities.
On the 30th, a soldier and his accomplice killed 5 members of the same family in Parwan. While there was a history of family feuds between them, the recent attack is reportedly because the killer was rejected in his efforts to marry a daughter of the enemy family. Her parents had recently agreed to marry their daughter to someone else. All attackers are in police custody. President Ghani condemned the massacre of staff and policemen at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris on the 7th.
However, the Presidential Palace also condemned the ‘survivor’s issue’ of the magazine on the 17th, stating the cartoon of a weeping Prophet Mohammad was ‘an insult to the sacred religion of Islam and the Muslim world’. In Kabul and other cities there were both peaceful and violent protests against the magazine, with one protest on the 31st resulting in seven injuries after police clashed with protestors trying to storm a private bank.
Development and aid
The continued absence of a Cabinet has beleaguered development projects across the country. The Indian and Australian governments this month announced US$100million and $300million of new development funds respectively, but the Afghan parliament criticised their own budget. With 183billion Afghanis ($3.2 billion) proposed in the first draft for development, questions arose over equitable provincial balance of development projects. On the 28th, Parliament approved the national budget, after amendments were made to include incomplete historic development projects and exclude the budget line for the CEO’s expenditures. The new budget is $7.6 billion ($4.9 billion regular and $2.7 development budget).
President Ghani’s recent regional trips began to bear fruit, as both Turkmenistan and Iran finalised or approached strategic trade cooperation agreements. On the 31st, the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries announced that their survey of 1,209 firms reveal a 31% increase in optimism among the business community.
Afghanistan’s displaced people were granted a small level of respite at the start of the month. UNHCR joined the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation and other humanitarian partners in giving out warm clothing, heating material, kitchen-sets and dignity kits to over 2,300 internally displaced and returnee families in Kabul. 6,000 families in Kabul are expected to benefit from the distribution whilst the efforts are part of a coordinated response to provide winterization assistance to over 32,000 displaced families – 225,000 individuals – across the country.
On the 15th the Mine Action Programme of Afghanistan reported that during 2014, they were directly affected by 37 security incidents that resulted in 61 casualties among its personnel (34 killed and another 27 injured). This annual figure represents almost an equal number to the total over the previous four years combined.
Culture and people
With next month’s Cricket World Cup around the corner, the national team put in final preparations during warm-up matches. With wins against Ireland and Scotland, the team departed for Australia and New Zealand on the 30th, with a send off at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai Airport from CEO Abdullah and other government officials. Their first World Cup match will be against Bangladesh on 18th February.
In other sporting news, Afghans found themselves an unlikely new hero in the shape of Bruce Lee-lookalike, 20 year old Abbas Alizada. The martial arts devotee became an internet sensation after friends and family posted pictures and videos of him on Facebook and YouTube. His newly-launched Twitter account had over 50,000 followers at the start of the month.