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    South Asia
     Feb 7, 2009
Iran and the US: United over Afghanistan?
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - The annual Munich Security Conference, which brings together a dozen world leaders and about 50 top diplomats and defense officials, starts on Friday for the 45th time with one item paramount on its agenda: the United States-led world order, given the troubles in Afghanistan and Iraq and the ongoing impasse with Iran.

The US has sent a high-ranking delegation led by Vice President Joe Biden and the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrook. They are expected to seek informal dialogue with Iran, represented by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and parliament speaker Ali Larijani.

This contact on the event's sidelines will likely focus on the Iranian role in Iraq and the need for Tehran's cooperation over


Afghanistan, especially in allowing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) non-military supply lines to pass through the Iranian port of Chabahar on the way to Afghanistan.

This has become a crisis point for NATO, given that the Taliban have severely disrupted its conveys as they pass through the Khyber Pass in Pakistan and elsewhere. In the latest incident, the Taliban this week blew up a bridge on the Peshawar-Torkham Road and NATO supplies are expected to be crippled for at least 10 days.

With about 80% of NATO's supplies going through Pakistan, and with an additional 30,000 US troops to be pumped into Afghanistan, it is crucial that these supply lines be protected, or routed elsewhere.

Although NATO has struck deals with some Central Asian republics and Russia for non-military supplies to pass through their territory, these routes are much longer and more expensive, leaving NATO with no choice but to negotiate with Iran.

Gilles Dorronsoro, a noted expert on Afghanistan and Turkey who has worked in both countries for over 20 years, commented, "The Taliban have been able to adapt very quickly to allied tactics. Their learning curve is good, and they have the psychological momentum," he wrote in a Carnegie Policy Briefing, "Focus and Exit: An Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War".

"The situation in 2009 is probably going to deteriorate, but the results of any increase in troop numbers will be difficult to assess before the summer of 2010. In the event of failure, the US administration will have very few options left, because sending another 30,000 troops would present a political challenge. This is why it is especially important to concentrate attention on areas where the troops can make a real difference (ie, Kabul and not Helmand), allowing the allies to build sustainable Afghan institutions and eventually withdraw their military forces."

Dorronsoro argues that the international community needs to concentrate on creating the stability necessary for troop withdrawal.

United States efforts to make progress in Afghanistan could to a large extent depend on what happens in two of its key allies - Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

A report by Simon Henderson for the think-tank The Washington Institute reveals an imbroglio within Saudi Arabia and speculates that given the serious ill health of Crown Prince Sultan and the deteriorating health of King Abdullah, the next few months could pose a serious challenge for American policy makers.

"After months of speculation about the health of the designated successor to King Abdullah, Crown Prince Sultan, Saudi officials are now openly talking about Sultan's ill health. The kingdom - a close US ally, the self-professed leader of the Islamic world, the world's largest oil exporter, and most recently the much-needed source of financial capital for the world's struggling economy - is heading for a period of changing leadership. The identities of the future kings, however, are so far unknown and largely unpredictable," Henderson observed.

Henderson discusses in detail the complexities involved in the choice of the next crown prince and the possibility of serious unrest in the royal family which could reduce its capability to support American designs in the region.

"Washington hopes to avoid an internal Saudi royal dispute ... Riyadh will be allergic to external interference or advice on such matters, but the outcomes of the probable transitions in the next few months will be of intense interest to the United States and much of the world," Henderson, a Baker fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute, concluded.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, the situation in the most important non-NATO US ally in the "war on terror" is as unstable.

North-West Frontier Province, bordering Afghanistan, is now virtually under the control of the Taliban, which has diminished the Pakistan military's capability to support the US efforts against militancy.

The military is unable to prevent incidents such as the blowing up of the bridge in Khyber Agency, and the Taliban have pinned down troops on several fronts. On American pressure, Pakistan engaged militants in Bajaur and Mohmand agencies, but its troops have been unable to make any headway amid unabated guerrilla attacks.

The Taliban recently increased their activities in the Swat Valley - only three hours' drive from the capital Islamabad - and apart from a few areas they have seized the entire valley.

The situation could deteriorate in the coming weeks as opposition parties have announced a "long march" against the government on March 9 and there are growing reports of differences between Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gillani and President Asif Ali Zardari that could hamstring the government.

A conflict is also emerging between US President Barack Obama and the US military leadership. "The struggle reflects a fundamental choice between strategic withdrawal from Iraq and an attempt to prolong the US military presence in the country beyond 2011," noted investigative US journalist Gareth Porter in article for Le Monde Diplomatique. (See also Obama not bowing to top brass, yet Asia Times Online, February 4, 2009.)

Obama insisted that he would not adjust his schedule to bring it into line with the recommendations of General David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq and Afghanistan. "The president's job," said Obama, "is to tell the generals what their mission is."

These are some the developments that will be considered at the Munich meet. In anticipation of its worst year in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, it is possible that the Americans will abdicate much of their interest in Iraq in favor of the Iranians, and in return, Tehran will allow passage to NATO's non-military supplies through Chabahar port.

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

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Feb 5, 2009)


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