Obama's AfPak envoy may embrace Iran
By M K Bhadrakumar
The probability is that the United States President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry got around to reading the congressional testimony titled "Negotiating with Iran" given by Ambassador James Dobbins on the Hill on November 7, 2007, while deciding to name him as the new US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Here is a veteran diplomat who oversaw the ouster of the Taliban regime and represented the US at the Bonn Conference in December 2001, who got Hamid Karzai installed as the head of the interim Afghan, and who raised the Stars and Stripes in the
embassy compound in Kabul after a poignant interlude lasting over two decades.
Kerry paid rich tributes to Dobbins' credentials as a diplomat. Yet something remains unexplained still. The truth diggers, in fact, have already begun mocking the fact that Dobbins is an unlikely choice to have been made by Obama as the US special representative at the present juncture - when the war in Afghanistan is practically being wound up and the withdrawal of the American troops is under way.
The point is, Dobbins has been an inveterate critic of Obama's plan to reduce the US' military footprint in Afghanistan. He voiced enthusiastic support for the counterinsurgency strategy [COIN] carried out by General David Petraeus and was sharply critical that the COIN was reduced to mere counterterrorist operation.
In a memorable article in Foreign Affairs magazine in late 2010 he wrote,
By definition, any military activity that seeks to counter an insurgency is counterinsurgency, or COIN as it is often labeled for short. All of Obama's advisers agree that the Taliban is an insurgency and that the United States has a real interest in stopping its return to power. Why, then, would Obama's civilian advisers argue against organized military activity designed to counter a Taliban takeover?
Again, Dobbins used to be a passionate advocate of the nation-building work in Afghanistan, which Obama has since thrown out of the window as none of America's business. Indeed, it all but seems that Obama's choice of Dobbins could be seen as a whimsical move that is out of sync with his overall Afghan strategy. Max Fisher of the Washington Post acerbically noted,
Maybe, the [Obama] administration is hoping to bring internal dissent to a foreign policy team increasingly staffed by realists such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, but it's an otherwise surprising move.
But then, all this could be valid criticism, provided the job of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan were to be a war strategist. Which, however, is not the case. On the contrary, Dobbins' real credentials lie quite somewhere else than on the kinetic battlefield.
Kerry made this clear while announcing the appointment. He said, "He [Dobbins] has deep and longstanding relationships in the region ... Jim will continue building on diplomatic efforts to bring the conflict to a peaceful conclusion, actively engaging with states in the region and the international community."
Interestingly, Kerry left it vague as to the regional states where Dobbins would have "deep and longstanding relationships". This is where Dobbins' 2007 congressional testimony becomes important; in it, he narrated at some length how closely he worked with the Iranian diplomats to bring about the difficult transition in 2001 and more important, how obliging and keen Tehran was in working with the US.
To quote Dobbins, "America's rapid success in toppling the Taliban and replacing it with a broadly based, moderate successor ... depended heavily upon the support American military and diplomatic efforts received from all the neighboring states, notably Iran."
Dobbins recounted specific instances when the Iranians helped out in Bonn, "without which the Karzai government might never have been formed". But soon afterward the George W Bush administration opted to include Iran in the "axis of evil" instead of building up on the critical mass that formed in Bonn.
In a stunning disclosure, Dobbins said that nonetheless, two months after president George W Bush trotted out the thesis of the "axis of evil", the Iranians approached Dobbins again on the sidelines of an international conference at Geneva with yet another proposal of collaboration.
This time it was about Iran participating in a program to train a new Afghan National Army under American leadership. Dobbins noted,
Iranian participation, under American leadership, in a joint program of this sort would be a breathtaking departure after more than 20 years mutual hostility. It also represented a significant step beyond the quiet diplomatic cooperation we had achieved so far. Clearly, despite having been relegated by President Bush to the 'axis of evil', the Khatami government wanted to deepen its cooperation with Washington, and was prepared to do so in a most overt and public manner.
But, Dobbins recalled that there were no takers in Washington for the Iranian proposal although he approached the then secretary of state, Colin Powell, and national security advisor Condoleeza Rice and was even briefed an inter-agency meeting attended by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Without doubt, what Dobbins brings into Obama's team is an invaluable insight into where things began going haywire for the US in Afghanistan, by overlooking "the impossibility of holding together disintegrating societies without the cooperation of adjoining states".
Dobbins concluded his testimony with the following advice to the Bush administration: "It's time to speak to Iran, unconditionally, and comprehensively."
Of course, Dobbins didn't carry sufficient weight within the Bush administration, and the diplomatic path he pursued with the Iranians ended in a cul-de-sac, almost inevitably. This is where Obama could make all the difference.
To be sure, Dobbins' selection as the special representative will be noted with interest in Tehran. The Iranian diplomats who dealt with him still have warm words to speak of him. They acknowledge him as a formidable champion of US interests and a tough negotiator, but also recognize him as a realist who has tried to understand without pride and prejudice the Iranian motivations too.
The heart of the matter is that the US has nothing to lose and everything to gain by reviving the collaboration with Iran over the stabilization of the Afghan situation. The peace talks with the Taliban have not taken off, and the Taliban spring offensive has begun. Five American soldiers were killed in an ambush on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Pakistan's strategic ambiguity has continued. The Afghan-Pakistani tensions are spiraling with the eruption of clashes between security forces on the Durand Line. The prospects appear more remote than ever that that Islamabad will permit any substantive direct talks to take place between the Taliban and Karzai's government. All this is when the US troop withdrawal is gathering momentum.
Suffice to say, an opening to Tehran can entirely change the matrix in favor of the overall US strategy in the period ahead. Iran is a stakeholder in the stabilization of Afghanistan. It enjoys considerable influence within that country.
If Dobbins is true to his word in his seminal 2011 monograph titled "Afghan peace Talks: A Primer", a substantial American military engagement is becoming necessary beyond the 2014 deadline now that it is clear that the negotiations with the Taliban are getting nowhere.
However, Dobbins also forewarned in the monograph that much water has flowed under the US-Iranian bridge and Tehran today is "likely to have a low level of trust in American intentions". This is how Dobbins estimated Iran's hardcore, "must have" objectives in Afghanistan:
1. The "eventual withdrawal" of American and International Security Assistance Force military and intelligence forces from Afghanistan;
2. A stable Afghanistan with a regime in Kabul that is friendly to Iran and not dominated by Pakistan or Pakistan's Taliban proxies.
Clearly, the Iranian objectives do not necessarily clash with Obama's Afghan strategy. But then, the big question remains, as Dobbins noted: "The rhythm of Iranian support for or obstruction of a peace process is more likely to depend on timelines external to Afghanistan, such as progress in Iran's nuclear program, competition between Iran and the Gulf states, and Iran's long-standing tensions with the United States."
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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