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    South Asia
     Jun 8, 2007
Iran forces the issue in Afghanistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAM QALA, Iran-Afghanistan border - When Iran announced in February that it was undertaking a thorough regularization of aliens on its soil, ears in the West pricked up, but not much was read into it.

However, the subsequent expulsion of thousands of Afghan refugees indicates the twofold motive behind the move. First, Iran wanted to weaken Sunni-led insurgents in its bordering areas, and second, it believed that the return of the refugees would fuel the

Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.

The second calculation, compounded by a political miscalculation on the part of the Afghan government, has already borne fruit, in the process providing the United States with another area on which it needs to consult Tehran.

On April 23, Iran sent back 4,000 undocumented Afghans to Zaranj, Nimroz province, followed the next day by the same number. All of them had been living in the Iranian Sunni-dominated Zabol-Zahedan region of Sistan-Balochistan province and had originally hailed from Nimroz and Farah provinces. An estimated 1 million Afghan refugees live in Iran.

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, up to the beginning of this month, 98,712 persons had been deported since April 23 - the largest number ever send back from Iran in such a short period. Almost all of them were sent from the Zaranj border crossing. They were said to have refused to comply with a decision by the Iranian government to declare the Zabol-Zahedan area a "no-go" zone for "foreigners".

In fact, observers claim that Tehran wants to clear all people, local or foreign, from the Sunni-dominated area to minimize the chances of insurgents securing safe sanctuaries in the remote regions of Zahedan and Zabol.

Zahedan has traditionally been the base of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK - People's Mujahideen), which has conducted terror acts in Iran. And recently an organization called Jundallah emerged from the area to carry out terrorist activities against Iranian security forces.

Jundallah is a hardline Sunni Islamist group drawn from the Baloch population of Iran, as well as Balochs from Pakistan (Balochistan province) and Afghanistan (Farah and Nimroz provinces).

Zabol's vastness has served as a safe haven for the Taliban, as the local population is sympathetic to them. One of Osama bin Laden's sons, Saad, was arrested from Zabol by Iranian authorities. This was never officially announced, and some reports say he was released last July.

According to field officers of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, although they made every effort to stem the flood of refugees, they have had little success and they are struggling to cope with the numbers. About 1,300 a day are still streaming across the border, most of them headed for their home provinces of Farah and Nimroz.

The situation is a serious concern for Kabul as well as its international supporters. The province of Farah, in western Afghanistan near Herat province, was virtually in the hands of the Taliban until last November, but constant operations by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Afghan forces forced the Taliban back. Nevertheless, in the ongoing spring offensive, the Taliban are re-establishing their influence.

After a surge in attacks since last month, the Herat-Farah highway has been declared insecure and officials of international agencies are banned from traveling on it - they have to use NATO or UN air services.

"The most alarming thing is the gradual increase in the activities of the Taliban in Farah and Nimroz and the return of the Afghan refugees. They are poor and needy and naturally will fuel the Taliban insurgency," a senior official of an international agency told Asia Times Online on condition of anonymity.

However, other factors will help make western Afghanistan a new hub of Taliban activities this year. Sayed Hussain Anwari, a Shi'ite ethnic Hazara, was installed as governor of Herat this year in the predominantly Tajik-Sunni province.

Anwari is a bitter rival of a legendary Afghan commander of the resistance against the Soviets in the 1980s, Ismail Khan, and Anwari's appointment by Kabul was an open declaration of war against Khan and his formidable support. Khan was sacked as governor in September 2004. As a conciliatory gesture, President Hamid Karzai appointed him minister of energy.

The consequences of sidelining the powerful Khan are being manifested in the re-emergence of the Taliban in the northwestern provinces of Herat (Shindand), Farah, Nimroz and Ghor through the facilitation of local warlords, many of them Khan supporters.

To date, Iranian diplomacy has been effective in keeping the US war machine at bay in the Persian Gulf and even compelled the Americans to open dialogue with Iran over its role in Iraq and the region. Northwestern Afghanistan is the latest front on which the Americans need to make a bargain with Tehran.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Missions impossible: NATO's Afghan dilemma (Jun 1, '07)

Bad blood spreads to Afghanistan's north (May 30, '07)

Afghan battle lines become blurred (May 19, '07)

Iran pulls the rug from Afghan refugees (May 10, '07)

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