As the war in Afghanistan enters a critical phase, a lot rides on who appears to have gained the upper hand at this point, and what that would mean for different stakeholders once US withdraws. The talk of ‘political solution’ and ‘withdrawal’ has already emboldened Taliban, making the American task even harder. An important consideration for the country would be how to balance the rise of assertive China and resurgent Russia and to prevent any single regional player to dominate. This article looks at the shape of future balance of power in Afghanistan that US may regard as acceptable. This job has been complicated by the results of the just concluded US midterm elections.
Obviously, with direct US and NATO involvement in Afghanistan, they by far have the heaviest stakes, but ironically, a dissipating ability to manage the future of Afghanistan. That capacity has increasingly shifted to the regional neighbors of Afghanistan and their civilizational and global sponsors. In other words, the solution to Afghanistan lies more in Iran and Pakistan and their partners such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, India, China, and Russia.
As soon as one involves these countries towards finding an amicable solution, it inadvertently becomes a delicate act of balancing their regional and global ambitions. Nonetheless, by opening the Afghan game-field to other stakeholders, US has demonstrated the premise that it will not allow any single party to prevail in Afghanistan or to develop an alignment of interests with other regional players.
US-Pakistan Relations and Afghanistan
There is a need to understand the global context under which the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue is taking place. US policy on Pakistan is not just a bilateral matter, but an consequence of an elaborate deliberation, involving different foreign policy interests. America is a super power with global interests, and the role of Pakistan fits with in the parameters of its emerging worldview. On the other hand, Pakistan at best is a stagnant regional power which evaluates how it fits in this emerging American world vision. Many experts of the region misinterpret Pakistan’s perspective and threat perception as being myopic and overly India-centric.
However, this view fails to take in to account how Pakistan assesses its place in the emerging global order. Although challenged at many fronts, the country aspires to play a significant regional and global role. When Pakistan sees that despite rendering great sacrifices in the war against terror, US and the budding international system is promoting India, which does not have a border with Afghanistan. This is bound to cause mistrust between US and Pakistan.
In the emerging world in which US is facing an assertive China, Pakistan often appears to be representing Chinese interests in the region and Afghanistan, and at other times, it looks more like a US ally. The fall of Afghanistan in the 80s, from the American point of view, would have represented a Domino Effect and spread of communism in the region. However, in 2010, it could imply Chinese ascendancy in the region. It is this background, which comes in the way of US fully supporting Pakistan.
US-Iran Relations and Afghanistan
It is due to the above laid out circumstances that in addition to India, US invited Iran to join the International Afghan Contact Group. The group gathers the Afghan government, NATO, the EU, U.N. and other key players to assess progress in Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan commented that it had no problem with Iran joining the group. Moreover, US appears to be appeasing Iran by announcing today that Jundallah has been added to its list of terrorist organizations.
However, the politics of Middle East, Iran’s nuclear ambition, including the Sunni-Shiite tussles, complicates that position. Ahmadinejad had recently commented that he considered Lebanon a part of its ‘security belt’ along with Iraq and Afghanistan, this raised alarm bells in neighboring countries. These worried neighbors in the Middle East include Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, including Pakistan in the context of Afghanistan.
PoliTact has previously projected that with temperatures running high in the AfPak Theater and the Pacific realm, US can hardly afford affairs worsen in the Middle East. US would prefer tackling these global hot spots in an order of its liking. The country needs Iran’s help in settling Afghanistan and as a counterbalance to the Sunni Jihadist threat. Therefore, it would want to keep matters related to Middle East and Israel, on a low burner for the time being.
Whether the US has cleverly tried to engage Iran in Afghanistan to counter the claims of Afghanistan being Iran’s “security belt” or whether they are trying to find a diplomatic platform to engage with Iran one thing for sure; bring Iran in on Afghanistan under the umbrella of US cooperation, and it will be a crucial turning point in US-Iran relations. If the US can pull this off they will effectively neutralize Afghanistan as a ‘buffer’ for Iran. It may, however, be a strategy of keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
US has been flirting with the idea of bringing Iran on board for some time now. In 2006, the Bush administration asked for Tehran to assist the US efforts in Iraq. When the US later spurned the helped they had asked for, the real opportunity was lost, and it became a sour point in the relationship between the US and Iran.
Obama’s team is not under any illusion that this tactic will create a friend out of Iran, but there is nevertheless hope that engagement and dialogue could soften the stark horizon of US interaction with Iran. Republicans are less optimistic and feel it is showing weakness on the US side. This difference on Iran between Democrats and Republicans, is likely to complicate the future of US Iran policy and the balance of power in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, diplomacy is also about creating leverages. By bringing Iran on board in Afghanistan an urgency is created for the Sunni stakeholders of the AfPak equation as well as the Middle East peace process.
On the other hand, Iran is not waiting around to let US play its bets, and is attempting to improve its traditional economic cooperation with Turkey and Pakistan. And while Russia has recently started to distance itself from Iran, China still maintains substantial economic interests in Iran.
Iran-Pakistan cooperation is best represented by the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline project. The IP project was to include India previously, however, the ever-widening US-India strategic relations have put a dent in the Iran-India ties, and this has resulted in India dropping out. Nonetheless, China is more than willing to swap India on the IP project. To counter China, US has long propagated the Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India (TAPI) project, which excludes Iran.
Iran, Turkey and the Arab World
As pointed out previously, the Iranian threat plays a balancing role in the AfPak region as well as the Middle East. It helps the Sunni Gulf countries of the region lean towards the United States. For example, to counter Iran, the Gulf States of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar the UAE and Saudi Arabia have recently ordered arms from US at the cost of $123.
However, Iran and Saudi Arabia are facing another potential power, Turkey, also vying for leadership of the Islamic world. The emerging role of Turkey as a regional power broker was evident in the recent nuclear swap deal negotiated between Turkey, Brazil and Iran. Turkey is perceived as having tempered the somewhat unpredictable administration in Tehran, a perception certainly not lost, or liked by the Iranians.
While Iran and Turkey are jostling with each other for the limelight, other Arab nations are becoming increasingly alarmed at the role these two non-Arab nations are playing in the region. Arab-Turkish and Arab-Iranian relations are historically fraught, while Turkish-Iranian relations have been getting warmer with every year passing-their current rivalry over the champion of Palestine title belies a firm alliance in development, and the Arab states are not at all happy about it. So much so, that according to media reports, Saudi Arabia has offered Israel using a narrow corridor of airspace over the Kingdom, to better facilitate the bombing of Iranian nuclear installations.
Israel must be looking on aghast at the rise of these two nations in perception in the region, and their growing alliance-although it has not yet made a move to take Saudi Arabia up on its offer of a fly-over corridor for more ‘persuasive’ action against Iran. Furthermore, the developing Turkish-Iranian alliance represents a new Sunni-Shiite bridge-one, which Arabs have been unable to create. This development poses far-reaching consequences for the AfPak conflict in particular and the Islamic world in general.
In the game of public perception, the Arab states are beginning to look more and more pithy, especially when compared with the daring of the Turkish-led flotilla, in stark contrast to the compliant attitudes of the Arab states regarding Palestine-not that the other Arab states do not care for the Palestinian cause, but their reliance on the US, prevents them from taking any actuating steps against Israel in the name of the Palestinians. This is certainly not the case with Iran, and nor, would it seem, with Turkey.
In the emerging scenario, recent events suggest that with the exception of few Gulf countries, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan appear to be on a gradual tilt away from US and towards China. The other resurgent global power, Russia, is unsettling the European balance of power more so, than the Middle East and South Asia. In this context, Iran represents a valuable leverage, which US can use against the Arabs in the Middle East and against the Sunni influences of the AfPak Theater.
To diversify its options and hesitation in allowing Pakistan to dominate the future Afghanistan; it makes sense for US to open the Afghan game field to other stakeholders, such Iran, India, and Russia. In the broader context, the premise of US approach regarding the future of Afghanistan appears to be twofold:
First, to prevent any alignment develop along religious or civilizational lines in the region Secondly, to avert any firm alliance emerge between China and these regional countries. This policy allows US the flexibility to mix and match various interests and achieve what’s possible at this point.
From the perspective of US, the end game in Afghanistan would represent restoring the kind of balance of power there that existed before Taliban took over almost 95% of Afghanistan. The last bastion of resistance to Taliban, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated on September 9, 2001 followed up by 911. The subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan reversed Taliban gains.
To achieve these premises in the AfPak region, therefore, the role of Iran and India becomes paramount. Afghanistan symbolizes ‘Lebanon’ of the region, the balance of power there manifests on the whole region. However in the long run, and in the post Operation Iraqi Freedom environment, Iranian influence in the Middle East would still need to be balanced out against those of Sunni Arabs and Israeli interests.