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    South Asia
     Feb 10, 2009
Everyone wants a piece of the Afghan war
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - When full-scale fighting resumes come the end of winter this year in Afghanistan, the United-States-led coalition will have more on its hands than a resurgent Taliban.

The situation is compounded by different regional players, including Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China, jockeying to exploit the situation.

The administration of US President Barack Obama has already expressed grave concern over the situation in Afghanistan. "It is like no other problem we have confronted, and in my view it's going to be much tougher than Vietnam ... I have never seen anything like the mess we have inherited," Richard Holbrooke, the

 

US special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said at the weekend's 45th Munich Security Conference that brought together a dozen world leaders and about 50 top diplomats and defense officials.

The annual conference was this year particularly focussed on resolving the Afghan quagmire and on finding alternative routes for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supplies that pass through Pakistan.

The most logical route is through Iran's Chabahar port, but nothing formal was agreed. This leaves individual NATO member countries to deal with Tehran bilaterally to arrange for supplies for their troops to pass through Iran. Germany, France, Canada and Italy are a few of the countries with forces in Afghanistan with relatively good relations with Iran. However, even in these cases, Iran is in a position to manipulate the situation in its favor.

The situation is ripe for Iran to connect with two of its enemies - the Taliban and the US - both of which are seeking Tehran's help against each other. This is a trademark of Iranian diplomacy - to connect with its enemies and then exploit the situation to its best advantage.

Iranian support of anti-Taliban elements in Afghanistan in the post-September 11, 2001, situation was also tacit support for the US invasion of Afghanistan. But on the other hand, Iran got rid of an enemy in the Taliban and then succeeded in bringing those elements into power which were non-sympathetic to the American agenda. Tehran also kept a close eye on the US point man in Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai.

At the same time, Iran gave safe passage to several al-Qaeda members to pass through its territory while shuttling between Afghanistan and the Arab world. Other al-Qaeda members were detained in safe houses.

Renowned security expert Dr Farrukh Saleem chronicled the most recent development between the US and Iran in a recent column in The News International.
On 14 November 2008, a panel of 20 American experts that included James Dobbins, former US special envoy to Afghanistan and Thomas Pickering, former US ambassador to the United Nations, called for "unconditional negotiations" with Iran asserting that "it was the only option to break a cycle of threats and defiance".

On January 9, General Petraeus, [the chief of US Central Command with responsibility for Iraq and Afghanistan] while addressing the US Institute of Peace, said the US and Iran had "common objectives" in Afghanistan. (Petraeus must also be looking at the port of Chabahar as an alternative supply route to NATO troops in Afghanistan.) On January 11, the New York Times disclosed that "President [George W] Bush rejected several Israeli requests last year for weapons and permission for a potential air strike insider Iran."

On February 2, [Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr] Mottaki told the Tehran Times, "Resumption of relations with the US under the new circumstances is of prime importance and we are now studying the change of attitude and US policies ..." The same evening, General [John] Craddock, NATO's senior military commander, said, "NATO would not oppose individual member nations reaching bilateral deals with Iran for the transit of supplies to Afghanistan."

On February 4, the United States Department of Treasury added the Party For a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) to its list of terrorist organizations (PJAK has been active in trying to overthrow the ruling Iranian clergy). The United States of America once again needs Jomhuri-ye Eslami-ye Iran [Islamic Republic of Iran]. And, Jomhuri-ye Eslami-ye Iran needs the United States of America. America needs Iran to fight the Taliban-al-Qaeda combo in Afghanistan and America needs Iran to supply rations to NATO troops in Afghanistan. Iran needs America to break Iran's isolation and Iran needs America so that Iran can once again attract global capital in the face of a $100-a-barrel drop in the price of crude.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has given an account of how Iran has made the best of the situation in Afghanistan.
The pundits and journalists may applaud, but their adulation for Obama's new approach is based more on myth than reality. "Not since before the 1979 Iranian revolution are US officials believed to have conducted wide-ranging direct diplomacy with Iranian officials," the Associated Press reported. But Washington and Tehran have never stopped talking; indeed, many of Obama's supposedly bold initiatives have been tried before, often with disastrous results.

In 1979, Ayatollah [Ruhollah] Khomeini's return gave an urgency to US-Iran diplomacy. Many in Washington had been happy to see the shah go, and sought a new beginning with the "moderate, progressive individuals" - according to then-Princeton professor (now a UN official) Richard Falk - surrounding Khomeini. The State Department announced that it would maintain relations with the new government. Diplomats at the US Embassy in Tehran worked overtime to decipher the Islamic Republic's volatile political scene.

On November 1, 1979, Zbigniew Brzezinski, [president Jimmy] Carter's national security adviser and now, ironically, an Obama adviser on Iranian affairs, met in Algiers with Iranian prime minister Mehdi Bazargan and foreign minister Ibrahim Yazdi to discuss normalization amidst continued uncertainty about the future of bilateral relations. Iranian students, outraged at the possibility, stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days.
Iran has already turned a blind eye to the activities of extremely powerful Taliban elements in the Afghan provinces of Farah and Nimroz who often take shelter in Iranian Balochi provinces.

Some groups in northwestern Afghanistan, in their individual capacity, maintain good relations with Iran and receive arms and ammunition to fight against NATO forces in Afghanistan.

It is quite possible that should countries such as Italy and Canada, which have forces deployed close to Iran's Chabahar port, import supplies through Iran to their respective bases in Herat and Kandahar, that these consignments will be attacked and looted in the province of Nimroz by militants using Iranian arms.

How China eyes the rapidly unfolding situation in the Afghan war theater can be assessed by the Chinese Communist Party officially inviting an eight-member delegation of the Jamaat-i-Islami's leadership led by Qazi Hussain Ahmed to visit China. The JI is the main Islamist political party in Pakistan.

"The delegation comprising the Jamaat-i-Islami's top leadership led by its chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed departed from Islamabad on Sunday evening. They were officially invited by the ruling Chinese [communist] party," the JI's chief spokesperson, Shahid Shamsi, confirmed to Asia Times Online.

This is a visible Chinese bid to strengthen its relations with possible new players in the region. The JI is ideologically part of the global Islamic political movement and is very well connected with the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world. China wants to keep in touch with this important movement. In the late 1980s, on a trip arranged by Pakistani intelligence, Qazi Hussain Ahmed visited China to convince the Muslim separatist movement in the country to stop its insurgency.

In Afghanistan, the JI has a deep-rooted connection with the Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as well as ideological and friendly relations with the Jamiat-i-Islami Afghanistan led by Professor Burhan-ud-din Rabbani and the Ittehad-i-Islami Afghanistan of Professor Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the most important player in the Afghan war theater, nuclear scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan was released on Friday after five years of house arrest for selling nuclear secrets. Khan, who is suffering from prostate cancer, was released on the order of the Islamabad High Court after an out-of-court settlement was reached between him and the government, despite Washington's and London's protests.

In another development, Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ubiquitous ambassador in Washington, has a brain teaser for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, wrote Daniel Dombey and Edward Luce in the Financial Times of London.
America's secretary of state wants to triple civilian aid to Pakistan but impose clear conditions on military assistance to ensure the money goes towards fighting terrorists rather than building up Pakistan's defenses against India. A big chunk of the mostly unconditional $11bn in military aid George W Bush gave Pakistan since 2001 went on the latter. "There is no bullet that has been invented that Pakistan can be given to shoot at the terrorists that cannot be used in case there is a war with India," Mr Haqqani says in an interview. "That said, our primary threat right now comes from terrorism and not from our eastern neighbour, so our requests for support will be geared to the primary threat we have."
The report said that Haqqani is busy dealing with the latest complication in the US-Pakistani relationship - the release of Khan:
The man is seen by many Pakistanis as a national hero for his efforts in developing the nuclear bomb but is regarded by Washington as a dangerous proliferator for his assistance to Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs. "It may cause a short-term perception problem here," said the ambassador on Mr Khan's release. "But let's look at the bright side. Pakistan now has a genuinely independent judiciary and we have dismantled the A Q Khan network."
This reply from a person like Haqqani, viewed as Pakistan's de facto foreign minister and known for his very long closeness with the Pakistani military establishment (except for president General Pervez Musharraf's eight-year era that ended last year), shows that Pakistan is aware that American aid will not be cut any time soon as Washington desperately requires Pakistan's help.

Islamabad is therefore ready to impose its own terms and conditions to fight the American war in Afghanistan. Should all US efforts, including a troop surge, backfire, Pakistan is the only regional player with good relations with the Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan and the Taliban, and it has the ability to safely arrange an honorable exit for the US, compared to the humiliation it faced in leaving Vietnam in 1975.

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.)


Whistling past the Afghan graveyard
(Feb 7,'09)

Iran and the US: United over Afghanistan?
(Feb 7,'09)


1. Iran and the US: United over Afghanistan?

2. Whistling past the Afghan graveyard

3. Moscow, Tehran force US's hand

4. Fears orbit with Iranian satellite launch

5. Japan on the brink of the abyss?

6. Bad news means bad news

7. Sri Lanka's end game brings new woes

8. The political rebirth of Nuri al-Maliki

9. Little prospect of East-West accommodation

(Feb 6-8, 2009)

 
 



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