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
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
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,
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
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,
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 email@example.com