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    South Asia
     Apr 19, 2008
Afghanistan moves to center stage
By M K Bhadrakumar

Three or four seemingly unconnected statements within the space of the past week, and the "war on terror" in Afghanistan acquires new shades of meaning. On Wednesday, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said during a visit to the holy city of Qom that the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq "under the pretext of the September 11 terror attack".

A day earlier, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan, who was on a visit to London, publicly expressed skepticism over the conduct of the Afghan war by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). He warned that NATO is "courting disaster". On Monday, addressing a student gathering in Beijing's Tsinghua University, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf urged Chinese and Russian help in stabilizing Afghanistan. But in the ultimate analysis, it is 

 

the sensational revelation by erstwhile Northern Alliance leaders about their ongoing contacts with the Taliban that makes nonsense of the battle lines of the Afghan war.

The United States' monopoly of the Afghan war is beginning to come under serious public challenge. The "lameduck" George W Bush administration in Washington faces an uphill task to gain mastery over the equations developing on multiple levels.

Meanwhile, some questions arise. Are these statements and public stances essentially more prudent and prophylactic than provocative? Do they stem from a genuine concern in the region that the US is simply unable to forge ahead in the war? Or do they signify the stirrings of a concerted regional challenge to the US mission?

Ahmadinejad's statement is the first time that Tehran has questioned frontally at the highest level of leadership the raison d'etre of the US intervention in Afghanistan. He suggests that terrorism is the pretext rather than the reason for the US intervention. The Iranian leader alleges that the US intervention was more geopolitical. Considering that Iran (under former president Mohammed Khatami) had provided logistical support for the US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, Wednesday's statement signifies an important rethink in Tehran. Ahmadinejad has implicitly absolved the Taliban regime of any role as such in the September 11 attacks on Washington and New York.

Compared with the nuanced Iranian statement, Babacan has taken a stance from the perspective of Turkey being a major NATO power. Babacan said in an interview with the London-based Telegraph newspaper that NATO is courting disaster by relying too much on force to defeat the Taliban. He distanced Ankara from the US counterinsurgency strategy by stressing that the shift to a "more militaristic approach would backfire and ultimately undermine the Afghan government".

Babacan forcefully rejected the US criticism that Turkey has refused to deploy troops in the troubled southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan. He insisted on the continued logic of Turkey's Afghan policy, which focuses on reconstruction activities aimed at "winning their [Afghans'] hearts and minds". Significantly, he warned that Afghans could "start to perceive the [NATO] security forces as occupiers" and that the situation would become "very complicated". But he, too, avoided any criticism of the Taliban as such.

Interestingly, Babacan made these remarks in an interview in which he underlined Turkey's growing alienation from Europe. Also, on Monday, another round of Turkish-Iranian consultations were held in Ankara regarding bilateral cooperation in regional security, which is already quite substantial.

Musharraf has gone a step even further. He expressed the hope that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) could play a role in stabilizing Afghanistan. He added, "If the SCO can come along, then we would need to ensure that there is no confrontation with NATO." SCO comprises China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as full members and Iran and Pakistan as "observers".

Musharraf is famous for making impromptu remarks, but the fact that he made such a statement in Beijing merits attention. Pakistan has been seeking full SCO membership. The indications are that Beijing is, in principle, supportive of the Pakistani claim. Reports had also just appeared that Washington is pressing for an intrusive role to monitor the safety of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Musharraf has virtually endorsed a call by Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov at the recent NATO summit meeting in Bucharest (April 2-4) to the effect that the "Six plus Two" format of the 1997-2001 period (with the "six" being the countries bordering Afghanistan and the "two" being Russia and the US), which aimed at bringing about intra-Afghan reconciliation between the Taliban and its opponents, be expanded into a new "Six plus Three" format that would now include NATO, along with China, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and the US.

Moscow and Tashkent have a coordinated approach in this regard. Washington finds itself in a quandary to respond to the Uzbek offer of cooperation with NATO, which would mean virtual abandonment of alliance's plans to expand into the former Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia.

However, in a hard-hitting speech on Monday at Maxwell-Gunter air force base in Montgomery, Alabama, which was devoted entirely to the US strategy in Afghanistan, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice precisely invoked the great Cold War icons - George Marshall, Harry S Truman, George Frost Kennan and Dean Acheson. She sent a stunning message to Moscow that NATO's victory in Afghanistan is "not only essential, it is attainable".

Rice pointed out, "Successes in Afghanistan will advance our broader regional interests in combating violent terrorism, resisting the destabilizing behavior of Iran, and anchoring political and economic liberty in South and Central Asia. And success in Afghanistan is an important test for the credibility of NATO."

Rice coolly ignored the Russian-Uzbek offer of cooperation. Against the above background, this week's statement in Kabul by the top leadership of the erstwhile Northern Alliance (NA) merits close attention.

The NA leaders enjoy the support of Russia, the Central Asian states and Iran - and Turkey to an extent. Sayyed Agha Hussein Fazel Sancharaki, spokesman of these groups which now come under the umbrella of the United National Front (UNF), revealed to the Associated Press (AP) that former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani and the top NA commander from Panjshir, Mohammed Qasim Fahim (who also holds the position currently as a security advisor to President Hamid Karzai) have been meeting Taliban and other opposition groups (presumably, the Hezb-i-Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) during recent months for national reconciliation. He claimed these meetings have involved "important people" from the Taliban.

Indeed, Fahim (who was the chief of intelligence under the late Ahmad Shah Massoud) and Rabbani (who belonged to the original "Peshawar Seven" - mujahideen leaders based in Pakistan in the 1980s) would have old links with Hekmatyar and top Taliban leaders like Jalaluddin Haqqani. Rabbani told AP that the six-year war must be resolved through talks.

"We in the National Front and I myself believe the solution for the political process in Afghanistan will happen through negotiations," he said. Rabbani added that the opposition leaders would soon discuss and possibly select a formal negotiating team for holding talks with the Taliban. He found fault with Karzai for not pursuing dialogue with the Taliban. "I told Karzai that when a person starts something, he should complete it. On the issue of negotiations, it is not right to take one step forward and then one step back. This work should be continued in a very organized way."

It stands to reason that regional powers - especially Russia, Uzbekistan and Iran - will be watching closely the intra-Afghan dialogue involving the UNF and the Taliban. What gives impetus to this dialogue is apparently that the NATO summit in Bucharest came up with only small troop increments, which puts question marks on the viability and prospects of the NATO operations. But is that all?

These various strands can be expected to run concurrently for a while until some begin to outstrip others. It seems the geopolitics of energy are already taking an early lead. Musharraf last Friday aired with Chinese President Hu Jintao the topic of a gas pipeline connecting Iran and China via Pakistani territory; Iran is pressing for SCO membership; a gas cartel is about to take shape at the seventh ministerial meeting of the gas-exporting countries scheduled to be held in Moscow in June.

China's National Offshore Oil Corporation has confirmed that talks are indeed progressing on a US$16 billion gas deal involving Iran's North Pars gas field, close on the heels of the $2 billion agreement signed in March between the China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation and Iran for developing the latter's Yadavaran oil field.

A prominent expert, Igor Tomberg of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences, wrote recently, "Iran and Russia should probably not compete against each other but rather join hands on the gas market. The Iranian president has more than once suggested to his Russian colleague that their countries coordinate their gas policies and possibly divide gas markets. Moreover, there could be an agreement under which Russia will continue to supply gas to Europe, while Iran will export its gas to the East. This would undermine plans to diversify supply to Europe, which heavily depends on the United States."

Afghanistan is a key hub of resource-rich Central Asia and the Middle East. To use the words from Rice's Montgomery speech, "Let no one forget, Afghanistan is a mission of necessity for the US, not a mission of choice."

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).

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