Afghanistan: the politics of war

The American-led effort to map Afghanistan’s future neglects the role of the country’s neighbours – and could yet be derailed by events over Iran.
Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
29 January 2010

The international summit on Afghanistan’s future held in London on 28 January 2010 produced three main outcomes: a very clear willingness to negotiate with the insurgents, the provision of substantial funding ($140 million) to lure elements of the insurgency from their campaign, and a focus on more rapid training of Afghan security forces. At the same time, it is reported that elements of the Taliban are already engaged in informal talks with United Nations officials.

These proposals represent a remarkable change from the policy of the George W Bush administration, driven by a search for clear military victory in Afghanistan. Barack Obama and his team take a different view: they recognise that the war cannot be won and that compromise is essential. But they also make a concession to the Bush approach in believing that a position of military strength is route to securing the best compromise possible - hence the military “surge” that is currently underway. There remains a large question over the effectiveness of this approach; the infusion of more foreign troops could provoke increased resistance by Afghans who see them as occupiers.

Behind the coalition’s shift in policy is the concern that public opinion in the United States and Britain is moving against the war, and that more people in both countries increasingly want their forces to leave. Many other Nato countries may be involved in Afghanistan, but these two states are pivotal: the US for its political and military leadership, and Britain for the size of its own involvement (it has more than twice the number of soldiers in Afghanistan as any other European state), which helps make it a marker for European attitudes as a whole.

The worry about a possible early withdrawal of Nato forces is what prompted Hamid Karzai to speak in London of the need for a longer-term programme (amounting perhaps to fifteen years) of western involvement to ensure a stable country. The subtext of the Afghan president’s remarks is that a failure of commitment on Nato’s part could ensure Kabul’s fall to the Taliban - with al-Qaida too back in the frame.

The Iran factor

The decisions made in London reflect the Barack Obama administration’s search for a more intelligent and flexible strategy in Afghanistan. But the change of emphasis persists in ignoring another key element of the Afghan reality: namely, the role of important regional states (beyond the most obvious one of Pakistan). For a number of such states - Russia, China and especially Iran – has the capacity to reinforce or help derail western policy towards Afghanistan.

Iran’s position is made highly relevant by a set of factors: the extensive common border with Afghanistan, its political and social involvement in the west of the country, transport links to the Iranian ports of Chabahar and Konarak, and Tehran’s perennial concern over drug-trafficking across the frontier.  

The Tehran government is no friend of the Taliban, in part as its memories of the killing of Iranian diplomats in 1998 are still fresh. It is suspicious of Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban and sees this as a real obstacle to increasing its own influence in Kabul. This suspicion even extends to a willingness to improve links with India; some analysts identify the development of a Tehran/Kabul/Delhi axis that would cause the deepest of concern in Islamabad (see Kaveh L Afrasiabi, “Iran waits in the wings”, Asia Times, 27 January 2009).

This prospect has added significance in that Iran’s involvement is essential to Afghanistan’s long-term stability - yet (in part because of wider tensions over its foreign and domestic policy) it is the one state most likely to be sidelined in current discussions. 

There is a further point to remember here. The United States’s ability to respond to the 9/11 attacks by terminating the Taliban regime within three months had a lot of help from the Iranians; yet Iran promptly found itself part of the notorious “axis of evil” targeted by George W Bush in his state-of-the-union address in January 2002:

"States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world… I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as perils draw closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons."

In June 2002, the president went further in his graduation address at the West Point military academy:

"All nations that decide for aggression and terror will pay a price. We will not leave the safety of America and the peace of the planet at the mercy of a few mad terrorists and tyrants. We will lift this dark threat from our country and from the world."  

The regime in Tehran was led at the time by the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami; but the sense of insult from these rhetorical barbs remains embedded in Iranian politics to this day, and is a potent weapon in the armoury of Khatami’s hardline successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters.

The China-Russia factor

The stance of Russia and China is also a neglected factor in western discussion of Afghanistan.  In each country, there are two opposing calculations at work. The first is a fear that the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups will gain more power in Afghanistan and be able to spread their beliefs and influence among Muslim minorities in (for example) the north Caucasus and Xinjiang regions. China, with its common border with Afghanistan and its huge investment in mineral-extraction there, remains determined to maintain full control over the Uyghur people, and Russia looks on Chechens and other Muslim-majority communities with suspicion. This leads both countries to want a stable and moderate Afghanistan. 

The second calculation, however, is that Moscow and Beijing do not want Afghanistan to be a pro-American state with large US bases at Bagram and Kandahar; neither do they want the Pentagon to maintain close connections with the republics of central Asia.  They are well aware that such bases are, from the Pentagon’s point of view, almost the only positive thing to come out of eight years of war; and that for Washington, the US-central Asian link means influence in a key energy-rich region – in the very backyards of two potential rivals to US global power.

Iran, China and Russia – albeit with differing interests and emphases - all want a stable Afghanistan with minimal US influence, whereas India is content to deepen its own links with Kabul and is willingly improving its relations with Washington. Pakistan, meanwhile, is absolutely determined to avoid a pro-American Indian-influenced Afghanistan; the implication is that Islamaband’s bonds with the Afghan Taliban and other groups are far more important than expending excessive effort in controlling its own Islamist paramilitaries.

The Israel factor

The absence of such geopolitical considerations from the discussions in London limits the relevance of the conference there. The Pakistani dimension may receive great attention, but the neglect of Iran, China and Russia is both damaging and little noted.

Iran, as so often, may turn out to be the most important “absentee” – and, again as so often, find itself being written into the story. There are clear signs that the Obama administration is preparing to take a much harder line towards Tehran in the coming months (see Jim Lobe, “Sanctions, ‘Regime Change’ Take Centre Stage”, IPS, 27 January 2010).  At the very least there will be a major effort to secure much stronger sanctions at the United Nations Security Council; at most, the administration may withhold any effort to constrain Israeli military action.

The harder line will coincide with Israel’s completion of a major upgrade of its tanker-aircraft, allowing it to extend its capability to undertake long-range air strikes (see Alon Ben-David “Expanded Reach”, Aviation Week, 11 January 2010). Israel already receives routine military aid from the United States equivalent to about 20% of its defence spending, and these military links have recently been further upgraded with congressional permission to the Pentagon to store up to $800 million of war-reserves in Israel - much of it available to Israel for emergency use (see Barbara Opall-Rome, “U.S. Expands War Stocks in Israel”, Defense News, 11 January 2010).

The risk of an Israel/Iran war is rising (see “Israel’s shadow over Iran”, 14 January 2010). But the Iran/Afghanistan connection tends to be excluded from any such scenario. Many analysts have argued that the dangerous consequences of such a war include Iran’s capacity to interfere in Iraq and to disrupt Gulf oil-supplies. These dangers most certainly exist, but it may well be that an even greater impact would be felt in Afghanistan.

The London summit could signal a change in attitude to the Taliban that might just presage some hesitant progress in a complex, costly and divisive conflict. But if there were to be an Israeli attack on Iran, all could be derailed.


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