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
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
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
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
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
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).