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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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[email protected]