WHO WILL EMERGE THE REAL WINNER?
by Maj. Gen. Paul E. Vallely (Ret.), ©2010
(Jul. 10, 2010) — Iran and Afghanistan have strategic and regional ties that have not changed in the last nine years. Ties and support to the Taliban and al Qaeda Jihadis have strengthened. Osama bin Laden, many of his family and hierarchy, transit continually between Pakistan and Iran. Contrary to news reports, no one is living in any caves in the mountains of Afghanistan.
To secure Iran’s interest in Afghanistan, Iran has worked for the past decade to firm up all relationships with Afghan players and the other external supporters. Iran knows from bitter experience that the Hazara and the other Dari/Persian-speaking communities provide, at best, inadequate protection for Iranian interests in Afghanistan, because they cannot govern the country in a way that keeps it relatively stable and minimizes Pakistani and Saudi influence. So, alongside its alliances with the Hazara and the other Dari/Persian-speaking groups, Iran has also cultivated ties to some Pashtun elements in Afghanistan and supported the country’s Pashtun President, Hamid Karzai.
As part of Iran’s cultivation of ties to Pashtun elements, Iran has reached out to Taliban factions with money and weapons (IEDs). But we do know from intelligence that America’s “ally” Pakistan is providing vastly more support to the Afghan Taliban than anything the Islamic Republic might be doing at this point. And Tehran remains strongly opposed to the Taliban’s resurgence as a major force in Afghan politics, for two reasons. First, the Taliban have traditionally persecuted Iran’s Afghan allies—especially the Shia Hazara—and have even murdered Iranian diplomats. Second, Tehran sees the Taliban as a pawn for the expansion of Pakistani and Saudi influence in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a land (hard to describe as a country) with a jihad war where there is no identifiable ENDGAME and where no victory is achievable under this inglorious and ill-advised strategy of Counter-insurgency. Iran knows this and knows how to use proxy forces in Afghanistan as they have used Hezbollah in Lebanon. This now is the United States’ longest war effort. After eight years and six months, America’s longest war is about to end, although not in victory for the US-led NATO forces, but at best in a draw, or at worst, in a win for the Taliban, al Qaeda’s extremist partner. Iran sees its hegemony in the region further developing and increasing at the expense of the United States and ISAF Forces. The repercussions of the US exit in these circumstances will impinge on American influence worldwide including the Middle East. The longer the Obama regime clings to the assumption that cooperation with Pakistan and its intelligence agency is the only course for beating the Taliban and al Qaeda, the more elusive an Afghanistan triumph will be for the US and its allies. Iran is winning either way.
In the political and security vacuum that is today’s Afghanistan, Karzai’s effort to engage the Taliban is generating deep unease among Iran’s allies in Afghanistan’s Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities. Already, the leadership of these non-Pashtun communities—who also dominate the upper echelons of the Afghan military—are organizing to resist, by force, any serious attempt at power-sharing between Karzai’s government and the Taliban. If the Taliban’s political influence across Afghanistan continues to grow—particularly in an environment conditioned by what Tehran sees as America’s strategic and tactical incompetence—Iran will support its Afghan allies as they “push back” against a resurgent Taliban.
As Tehran pursues this strategy within Afghanistan, it must also assess the evolving role of the United States there and the implications of the U.S. posture toward Iran for Iran’s Afghanistan policy. Tehran perceives Washington as hostile to its interest which is the case and is driven by the Obama regime’s pursuit of tightened sanctions. Iranian policymakers will regard the United States, along with America’s Pakistani and Saudi allies, as part of the complex of anti-Iranian external players against which Iran needs to balance in Afghanistan.
In this context, Iran has a strong interest in preventing U.S. troops in Afghanistan from influencing any situation along the borders and use of covert operatives to undermine the Iranian government, or used to strengthen Iran. There is no question that Afghanistan as a whole is one major SNAFU. Yes, the United States still lacks a comprehensive interagency strategic plan which will outline an end state. Yes, some Non-Government Organizations are working closely with Anti-Afghan Forces, providing them with training as well as aiding and abetting their needs. And yes, the country is swiftly falling into the hands of the opposition.
In contrast to the United States, which seems at least to be looking for a viable exit strategy from Afghanistan, there is no exit strategy for Iran. Iran publicly calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, partly because U.S. forces there could be used against Iran and US influence in the region. But Tehran also calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan because Iranian policymakers believe that the extended U.S. presence there is seen by much of the population as an occupation and that it is this occupation which is fueling an increasingly fierce cycle of violence and instability. From Tehran’s perspective, this cycle of violence and instability empowers Iran’s Afghan adversaries, principally the Taliban, and their external backers, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, both of which are regional rivals to the Islamic Republic.
From an Iranian standpoint, the most constructive American strategy would have been for the United States to begin a gradual but steady withdrawal of troops a few years ago when that could have helped shape a political settlement based on power-sharing among all of Afghanistan’s major constituencies. From an Iranian perspective, such a settlement could have included the Pashtun, though, at least at the time, not necessarily the Taliban, and would have given Iran’s Afghan allies—who, at the time, were also America’s allies—the upper hand. Today, Iran is concerned that, as America belatedly positions itself to begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan next year, the Obama regime still has no coherent strategy regarding President Karzai’s drive for a political deal—a deal which, because of mistakes made by Washington, must now include the Taliban and its chief external backers, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Iran is concerned that the United States’ interest in fostering sufficient stability in Afghanistan for long enough to allow U.S. troops to begin leaving next year will lead Washington to drop the “red lines” it has imposed on Taliban participation in a political process. Iran is concerned that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia will be able to use the Taliban’s unchecked involvement in a power-sharing arrangement as a proxy to expand their influence in Afghanistan at Tehran’s expense and to threaten the Islamic Republic.
Under these circumstances, Iran will intensify its support for key players among the Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek groups, just as it did during the civil war that broke out after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and after the Taliban took power in Kabul in 1996. These dynamics raise the risks of renewed civil war in Afghanistan—a civil war that would simultaneously be a proxy war among Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, the country’s most powerful external players. These were precisely the conditions under which al-Qaeda found sanctuary and thrived in Afghanistan during the 1990s.
On Sunday, June 13, The Sunday Times of London ran a long article under the heading, “Pakistan Puppet Masters Guide the Taliban Killers.” It was based on a new report by the London School of Economics, according to which Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) is providing extensive funding, training and sanctuary to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The report cites concrete evidence suggesting that support for the Taliban is the “official policy” of the ISI, which not only trains and funds the Afghan insurgents, but also is officially represented on their leadership council.
Washington was shocked by this evidence so soon after President Asif Ali Zardar assured Obama when they met in Washington last month that he could count on the commitment of the Pakistani government and intelligence resources to fight Taliban and al Qaeda. But all the time it transpired, behind their false face to US military and intelligence chiefs, the ISI has been collaborating with Taliban commanders in their operational planning and selection of targets, supplying them with weapons, explosives and roadside bombs and making grants to the bereaved families of suicide killers who murdered American and British troops. According to a report, half at least of the 15 members of the Taliban’s Quetta Shura (the council which runs the war from its seat in Quetta, the capital of Pakistani Baluchistan) are active officers of Pakistani military intelligence. “It is impossible to be a member of the Quetta Shura without membership of the ISI,” said a high-ranking Taliban fighter. Given the depth of the ISI’s integration in the Afghanistan Taliban’s war effort against NATO, the US military might as well drop its efforts to cut the Afghan Taliban’s weapons supply route from Pakistan.
The Islamic Republic will continue supporting Afghan proxies and countering to some degree a Taliban backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. But, in the absence of a broader strategic understanding, those efforts will be seen, in Washington, and elsewhere, as undermining whatever political arrangements the Karzai government has reached with the Taliban. And that will fuel a regional proxy conflict with Afghanistan as the main battlefield and with the United States drawn increasingly into supporting Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and no Victory. Where Now?? What Now??
Editor’s Note: Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely’s website is here.