Cablegate: Governor Wahidi Hosts Timber Conference in Kunar

DE RUEHBUL #2438/01 2320925
O 200925Z AUG 09




E.O. 12958: N/A

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: On July 28, Kunar Governor Wahidi
convened a shura of timber merchants, land owners, and tribal
elders with three key GIRoA ministers to promote his vision
for the future of Kunar,s timber industry, including a halt
to smuggling and the disposition of massive existing timber
stockpiles. No immediate solutions were outlined but the
event demonstrated the Afghan government,s determination to
address the issue and hinted at the possible release of the
sequestered timber stockpiles following national elections on
August 20. The GIRoA ministers seized the opportunity to
talk directly to tribal elders about development in the
province, including power, education, health, and
agriculture. Some radio commentators and local leaders were
skeptical, calling the event a campaign stop, but most
expressed optimism that development would be accelerated
early in the new administration.

2. (SBU) Comment: The timing of the meeting, coupled with
the announced approval of a Kunar university and hospital the
day following the conference, had a strong tinge of electoral
politics to it, but the event did provide a needed
opportunity to move the timber problem onto the national
stage. End Summary.

3. (U) Governor Wahidi hosted a ministerial-level conference
on timber in Kunar,s capital city, Asadabad, on July 28.
Among the GIRoA attendees, were the ministers of Finance,
Commerce, and Agriculture, along with the Deputy Minister for
Administration and Finance at the Independent Directorate for
Local Governance (IDLG), and the Directors General for the
National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) and Customs.

4. (SBU) The Governor brought the senior delegation together
with Kunar timber trade association representatives,
landowners (of land where stockpiles are currently located),
and tribal elders to discuss the ongoing timber
sequestration. Wahidi,s stated goal was to promote his
vision for the future of a licit Kunar timber industry,
including a halt to smuggling and the need for the
disposition of massive existing timber stockpiles confiscated
by the government in 2005. Provincial officials and timber
barons sought to convince GIRoA that the government,s
current policy of inaction has a negative effect on economic
growth and longer-term stability. Wahidi also argued that
Asadabad is particularly affected by stagnant timber depots
that litter the capital city, pose a dangerous fire hazard,
and occupy land that could be used for additional
infrastructure and commercial activities. Timber traders
warned that the stockpiles are decreasing in value as a
result of exposure to the elements, and are therefore a
wasted valuable commodity in a very poor province.

5. (SBU) GIROA officials agreed with local leaders, in
principle, that timber stockpiles should be sold, with timber
&owners8 reaping the majority of revenue. Minister of
Finance Zakhilwal asked tribal elders to engage their
constituencies over the next month to support the current ban
on tree cutting and smuggling. Zakhilwal agreed to work with
the cabinet to consider a resolution after the completion of
national elections. Minister of Agriculture Rahimi reported
that the cabinet approved a new draft timber law, inter alia,
establishing a forestry service. This draft is now before

6. (SBU) During their public addresses, both Zakhilwal and
Rahimi used the opportunity to note the government,s plans
for further development in Kunar province, including a
university, a 100 bed hospital, the provision of additional
electricity, and assistance with agricultural production.
While these issues were off-topic, Zakhilwal tied them in as
other elements that will help Kunar,s longer-term stability.

7. (SBU) Some radio commentators and local leaders expressed
skepticism about the ministers, visit to Kunar, noting that
the event resembled a campaign stop for President Karzai,s
development team but produced no results. In spite of the
skepticism, most of Kunar,s businessmen and tribal elders
were pleased to see top GIRoA officials in Kunar and
optimistic that the government will make an effort to resolve
the timber issue once elections are completed.

8. (SBU) BACKGROUND: Timber has long been one of Kunar,s
most treasured natural resources; however, forests were
excessively depleted beginning with a country-wide population
boom in the 1960s. The wartime conditions that followed led
to unregulated and widespread cutting, and no reforestation.
A government ban on cutting and transport of the commodity,
mostly over environmental concerns, has led to a
sophisticated black market dominated by Kunari and Pakistani

KABUL 00002438 002 OF 002

&timber mafia.8 The international community remains
concerned that the current situation is contributing to
further environmental degradation, an atmosphere of
lawlessness, and direct or indirect financial support of the
insurgency. Draft timber legislation, which the Minister of
Agriculture hopes to see pass soon, provides a long-term
framework for sustainable community management of
Afghanistan,s timber resources, if sufficient law
enforcement assets are allocated to it.

9. (SBU) COMMENT: Wahidi,s timber conference was a success
in bringing the issue onto the national stage and raising
social awareness. The absence of the Minister of Interior
was unfortunate; law enforcement and corruption issues
surrounding timber smuggling remain key challenges. While
GIRoA officials were likely enticed to attend as part of
their campaign efforts for President Karzai, the event sets
the stage for future engagement. Announcements by the
national government of a Kunar university and hospital on the
day following the timber event lacked substance and
reinforced the suggestion that the shura was mainly about
electoral politics. Governor Wahidi will need to keep GIRoA
focused on the timber issue through the elections. Changes
in provincial leadership as well as cabinet ministers could
slow progress, and local leaders will also need to continue
pushing the issue. Kunar politics remain interesting:
Governor Wahidi invited a well known timber smuggler (and
provincial strongman) to deliver a gift to the Minister of
Commerce at the conclusion of the day,s activities.
Perhaps, the gift-giving will play a small part in
encouraging a GIRoA decision on the disposition of the timber
stockpiles by late September, should the key minister remain
in place. END COMMENT.


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