Iran, US take their fight to Afghanistan
Marine General Peter Pace, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, is not beyond making gaffes. When the clever editors of the Chicago Tribune recently prompted him to discuss his former commander-in-chief Bill Clinton's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuality among US servicemen, Pace responded that homosexuality was as "immoral" as adultery.
Senator Hillary Clinton, among others, promptly objected. For a week, it seemed Pace elbowed out the killing fields of Iraq from the great American debate.
Therefore, it might seem at first glance Pace was making a ridiculous gaffe on Tuesday when he implied Iran could be arming the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. Pace told reporters in Washington, "We know there are munitions that were made in Iran that are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Either the leadership in that country knows what their armed forces are doing, or that they don't know. And in either case, that's a problem." Pace added that Iranian-made mortars and C-4 explosives were intercepted in Kandahar.
But it is well known in the Afghan bazaar that the country is awash with Iranian weapons that were supplied to Northern Alliance groups during the anti-Taliban resistance in the late 1990s. The London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting has been monitoring erstwhile Northern Alliance groups based in the north of Afghanistan clandestinely selling their stockpiles of weapons to the Taliban. A north-south corridor of arms smuggling seems to be in place. North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) contingents have independently confirmed such smuggling.
There was nothing new about weapons with Iranian markings being found in Kandahar. Was Pace making another gaffe? No, Pace cannot be unaware of the lay of the land in the Afghan war zone. He must be a good soldier to hold such high office. But, as Bertolt Brecht wrote in his famous play The Caucasian Chalk Circle, "A good soldier has his heart and soul in it. When he receives an order, he gets a hard-on, and when he drives his lance into the enemy's guts, he comes."
Pace was speaking on orders. No sooner had he spoken than three senior officials of the George W Bush administration took over - Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
Perino essentially kept Bush out of the controversy, but what was interesting was that Gates and Boucher spoke while traveling abroad in regions relevant to Iran and the Afghan war. Gates was in Cairo, and Boucher spoke while on a visit to Brussels aimed at drumming up European support for the Afghan war.
Gates was categorical about Iranian government involvement. He then proceeded to discuss the Iranian government's Afghan policy. Gates said, "We don't know at what level this has been approved by the Iranian government or in the Iranian government. We don't know the magnitude of the assistance. It's obviously troubling and worrisome that the Iranians may be deciding to counter the efforts of some 42 nations in Afghanistan to establish a strong democratic state. So we'll watch it very closely."
Evidently, Gates went overboard by inviting the US's allies and friends to join in his condemnation of Tehran. Indeed, it strains credulity that the Iranian government has taken a virtual u-turn in its policy toward the Taliban. Iran is a big player in Afghanistan. It has thoughtfully exploited any new opportunities in the past five years to spread its influence and ideas within Afghanistan. Iran has pursued a nuanced strategy where various elements and policy instruments have been brought into almost optimal interplay - reconstruction, education, propaganda, good-neighborliness, trade, investment, economic interdependence and religion and ethnicity.
Conceivably, like any other outside power, Iran would keep up a certain tempo of intelligence activity inside Afghanistan in the nature of surveillance, information-gathering, and recruitment of agents.
Iran has made no bones that its Afghan policy is essentially three-pronged. First, Iran must hasten the vacation of the American military presence in Afghanistan. Second, everything possible should be done to ensure that the Taliban don't regain power in Kabul. Third, it is in Iran's historical, cultural and geopolitical interest to ensure that western Afghanistan remains in its sphere of influence.
But despite its self-image as an ascendant regional power, Iran has relied on soft power in advancing its policy objectives. In 2006, Iran issued close to half a million visas to Afghan nationals to visit Iran. Its contribution to Afghan reconstruction has been stunning - almost nearing US$1 billion.
Iran decided to live with President Hamid Karzai's enduring links with the security establishment in Washington. Iranian mediation was crucial in his induction into Kabul five years ago. Iran pretended it didn't notice that the US lowered the bar of democracy for getting Karzai elected as president. And, all the while, it kept counseling Shi'ite leaders to cooperate with Karzai.
Iranian propaganda doesn't berate Karzai's government for being ineffectual or corrupt, even though Tehran is uneasy about the aggravation of the Afghan situation. Unsurprisingly, Karzai visualizes Tehran as a balancing factor in Kabul's troubled equations with Islamabad. Out of all Afghanistan's neighbors, apart from New Delhi perhaps, it has been with Tehran that Karzai's government has kept up steady exchanges at the political level.
Kabul has time and again indicated that it has its perspectives on friendly relations with Iran, which are based on the imperatives of Afghanistan's national interests, no matter the tensions between Washington and Tehran. Similarly, Tehran appreciates that Karzai's government has its limitations in influencing US activities on Afghan soil directed against Iranian interests. Even with regard to the removal of Ismail Khan from the post of governor of Herat two years ago, Iran decided to take the US-engineered move in its stride.
Tehran has a fundamental problem with the Taliban's virulent anti-Shi'ite ideology - the main reason why Saudi Arabia and the US found the Taliban movement attractive in the mid-1990s. The Iranian leadership will not easily forget or forgive the Taliban for massacring (often burying alive) thousands of Shi'ites in the Hazarajat region and in northern Afghanistan during its years in power in Kabul. In Mazar-i-Sharif in 1997, when the Taliban executed eight Iranian diplomats, Tehran came close to war.
Without doubt, Iran was a principal backer of the Northern Alliance. Tehran not only rendered huge amounts of material and military assistance to the Northern Alliance groups, then-Iranian special envoy Alae'ddin Broujerdi (presently chairman of the Majlis' - Parliament's - foreign affairs and security commission) was a frequent visitor to the Amu Darya region and Panjshir Valley, cajoling and motivating the anti-Taliban resistance. Without Broujerdi's persuasive skill, Northern Alliance groups, ridden with petty jealousies and personality conflicts and turf problems, would have unraveled.
Thus, as the Guardian newspaper reported quoting Western officials in Kabul, what Gates said "is all a war of words. It has very little basis in reality." The remarks by Boucher corroborate the British daily's impression. "We have been seeing a series of indicators that Iran may be getting more involved in an unhealthy way in Afghanistan," Boucher said in carefully calibrated language.
He maintained, "I don't want to overstate it. We have seen these things that I've noted; the weapons that General Pace talked about show up in Afghanistan; seen reports of political involvement by Iran, and these are things that we are watching very carefully." But Boucher refrained from finger-pointing: "We don't know exactly who is doing this and why but we know that these are Iranian-origin weapons that have shown up in the hands of the Taliban."
By Iran's "political involvement", Boucher seemed to refer to the formation of the so-called National Front (NF) in Kabul a fortnight ago, which bears a striking resemblance to the defunct Northern Alliance but seeks reconciliation with the Taliban. Not only is the National Front headed by former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, but other Northern Alliance leaders have joined it as a collective leadership - Ahmad Zia Masoud, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Yunus Qanooni, Karim Khalili, Rashid Dostum, Mohammed Mohaqiq, Ismail Khan, among others.
Tehran's role, if any, in the NF's formation; the timing of the NF's formation; the NF's demand for national reconciliation with the Taliban; its willingness to accommodate Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; its forays into Karzai's Pashtun base (the NF includes Mustafa Zahir, grandson of former king Zahir Shah) - all these are nagging questions. On top of all this, it must have exasperated Washington to no end that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is preparing to make a visit to Kabul in the near future.
It shouldn't come as a surprise if Iran's Afghan policy is beginning to turn in a widening gyre even while on the well laid out five-year-old track. One thing is beyond doubt. Tehran must be regretting its role in establishing a post-Taliban regime in Kabul under American influence. Characteristic of the American philosophy of "winner-takes-it-all", once American control over the Kabul regime was legitimized internationally, Washington began seeking a rollback of Tehran's influence in Afghanistan, including in the western provinces.
Of late, details have begun to emerge that American intelligence has been training and equipping anti-Iranian terrorists belonging to the so-called Jundollah in camps inside Afghanistan. The Voice of America recently interviewed Jundollah leader Abdul Malek Rigi. He is a wanted by Tehran for several kidnappings and over 50 killings. In the latest incident, on March 25, Jundollah terrorists blocked the Zahedan-Zabol highway in Sistan-Balochistan province, killing 22 people, injuring six others and taking eight people as hostages. Later, four of these hostages were killed and the video footage of their killing was broadcast on a number of Arab television channels.
The leadership in Tehran has sized up the unprecedented nature of the US threat to the Islamic regime. Iranian rhetoric is beginning to resemble the stridency of the early years of the 1979 revolution when imam Ruhollah Khomeini fought off wave after wave of US assaults aimed at crippling the Islamic regime.
Once again, like during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, pro-Western Arab regimes are falling in line with the US diktat. Saudi Arabia's historic compromise in making the Arab League enter into talks with Israel virtually opens the way for Riyadh to have overt dealings with Tel Aviv in the near future on the pretext of discussing a settlement of the Palestinian problem. Washington is all but clinching a Saudi-Egyptian-Jordanian-Israeli arc of hostility toward Iran.
Meanwhile, the huge US military buildup in the Persian Gulf region continues. Gates just concluded a visit to Israel - the first such visit by a US defense secretary in the past eight years.
Tehran understands that despite the talk of a "diplomatic solution", Bush is ratcheting up tensions. Given the Democratic Party's close links with the Israeli lobby, it endorses Vice President Dick Cheney's line that "all options are on the table" when it comes to making Iran bend. In such a dangerous scenario, Tehran will not act impetuously. Persians do not behave like Texan cowboys - "my-enemy's-enemy-is-my-friend". It is illogical that Iran would open a new front in Afghanistan, either.
Besides, Iran estimates carefully that any link-up with the Taliban (and al-Qaeda), howsoever tactical, could have unforeseen long-term consequences. Also, Iranians have a fairly accurate assessment of the complexities of the US's dealings with the Taliban. Iranians have all long suspected that there is a convergence of interests between the US, Britain and Pakistan to keep the Afghan war going at a certain level of intensity as a justification for perpetuating the Western military presence in the region.
Without doubt, Tehran realizes that continued American occupation of Afghanistan is irreconcilable with its vital interests and core concerns. But, at the same time, Afghanistan's long-term stability is of utmost concern to Tehran. Thus, the Iranian reaction to the US support for terrorism will be measured and proportionate. The Iranians know that the Afghan war is largely a war dominated by spin.
We may expect that Iran will use all its influence in Afghanistan, which is quite considerable, to make Washington realize that its support of terrorism from Afghan soil comes at a heavy price. Pace unlikely thought through before he spoke on Iranian support of the Taliban. But, then, as Frederick the Great once said, if his soldiers were to begin to think, not one would remain in the ranks.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).