by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 6, Ramadan, 1432)
With America’s departure from Afghanistan now almost certain, new alignments are beginning to emerge among regional players aimed at securing the most favorable outcome for each country. Islamic Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan are in the forefront of this effort but Russia, China and the Central Asian republics are not far behind either.
With America’s departure from Afghanistan now almost certain, new alignments are beginning to emerge among regional players aimed at securing the most favorable outcome for each country. Islamic Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan are in the forefront of this effort but Russia, China and the Central Asian republics are not far behind either. What is common between all of them is the strong desire to prevent permanent US military presence in the region, especially in Afghanistan where the Americans are exerting pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to such an arrangement. Whenever America enters a region, it causes destabilization and immense damage. America’s allies — Britain, France, Germany and Canada — are also heading for the exit door even if they are doing so under the label of “transition” to Afghan control.
What shape these new alignments take will have profound implications for the region and indeed for global politics. The starting point in any such arrangement must be an accurate assessment of the current situation and how they perceive US intentions. Further, in order to achieve a desirable outcome, regional countries must be transparent and honest with each other, something not always easy to achieve. Equally, America’s propensity for mischief making should not be underestimated. It may be down but it is not completely out yet, even if militarily it has been defeated and economically ruined by the two disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the casino economy it has operated for nearly two decades.
What shape these new alignments take will have profound implications for the region and indeed for global politics.
What is clear from recent developments is that US relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan have soured. Given their divergent perceptions, US-Pakistan relations were always difficult even if publicly both sides put a positive spin on it. It was essentially a marriage of convenience in which each side put up with the other’s duplicity because there was some benefit in doing so. With the US decision to cut and run from Afghanistan and the Osama bin Laden episode providing a convenient face-saving opportunity, Pakistan’s usefulness to the US has diminished. American officials have not been exactly diplomatic even in public so it is not difficult to surmise what they must be saying to the Pakistanis in private.
On its part, Pakistan has not taken all this as submissively as it used to do in the past. How far Pakistan will be able to maintain the posture of standing up to the US is yet to be seen but there has been a perceptible shift in Pakistani thinking that is reflective of the deep unease felt in higher ranks of the military. The new policy is almost certainly the result of such thinking.
There has been a flurry of activities by Pakistani officials represented by highly publicized visits to various capitals in recent weeks. President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to Moscow on May 11 to confer with the Kremlin leadership was followed by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s four-day visit to Beijing from May 17. Significant as these visits were, they were surpassed by Zardari’s visit to Tehran from June 23 and his participation in the International Conference on Terrorism (June 25–26) at the invitation of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Karzai was also present at the Tehran conference. Both guests were honored by meeting the Rahbar, Ayatullah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.
The Tehran visit by Zardari and Karzai was also important for another reason: it was a public rejection of US accusations that Iran is a “sponsor” of terrorism. While completely untrue, this ludicrous allegation is used to deter countries from establishing close ties with the Islamic Republic for fear of antagonizing Uncle Sam. But things have clearly changed; both Pakistani and Afghan officials feel they can ignore American displeasure and possible repercussions flowing from it. On its part Pakistan also ignored Saudi calls not to attend the Tehran summit. Islamabad could not have taken this decision lightly since Riyadh is one of its major financiers, but with the Saudis now openly aligned with Washington and Tel Aviv in the wake of the Muslim East uprisings, and America’s blatant attempts to undermine Pakistan, Islamabad feels it must realign its policies to protect its interests. The move toward closer links with Tehran is part of this realignment.
Energy and cash-starved Pakistan has other concerns as well. The US has been exerting pressure to prevent Islamabad accepting Iran’s offer to supply oil at reduced prices. While Washington never tires of reminding the Pakistanis about the money it is giving — for services rendered, not as charity, it must be pointed out — yet it would not allow the country to make deals elsewhere, especially with Iran. This has become clear through WikiLeaks that published cables of conversations between Zardari and American officials in late 2009. During Zardari’s meeting with President Ahmedinejad, the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project was also discussed. Iran has already completed the construction of 1,000 kilometers of the pipeline out of the 1,100 kilometers portion on its soil.
Iran has also proposed that an electricity transmission network be built next to the pipeline, connecting its grid with that of Pakistan. Additionally, Iran has offered to sell 1,000 megawatt hours of electricity to Pakistan at a subsidized rate. There have been protests in Pakistan due to electricity shortages affecting production, especially textiles that have suffered badly. Power outages last as long as 10–12 hours per day. Textile exports are the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy, and any decline in production would severely damage the already fragile economy. It is yet to be seen whether Pakistan can make a decision to serve its interests or allow itself to be bullied by the US and suffer as a consequence.
Karzai’s decision to go to Tehran has been an even bigger slap for the US. He is totally dependent on Washington but since he has been repeatedly and publically humiliated, Karzai has finally stiffened his backbone to stand up to the US. So far he has resisted US pressure on the issue of military bases. The Americans, in retaliation, have tried to promote Abdullah Abdullah, the defeated presidential Northern Alliance candidate, to undermine Karzai. Since Tajiks dominate the Kabul government, this makes Karzai vulnerable but the latter has acted deftly. He has recruited important Tajik figures like Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president, and Muhammad Qasim Fahim, a well-known commander who is currently one of the vice presidents. Thus, Karzai has covered his Tajik flank from US mischief-making.
The other US front against Karzai and his supporters was opened through the failed Kabul Bank. Abdul Qadir Fitrat, the bank’s chief executive, fled the country at US prompting, and is currently ensconced in Washington, DC. Karzai was so piqued by Fitrat’s escape and America’s granting him protection that he publicly lashed out at Washington saying the US is harboring Afghans accused of corruption. The Kabul Bank scandal runs much deeper; the US was micro-managing its operations from its embassy in Kabul. It is, therefore, not without blame.
For Iran, the issues have always been much clearer even if it has not had complete success in convincing its neighbors to be wary of the US. Circumstances have now changed sufficiently to enable it to make some bold moves. Tehran wants to reduce US presence and influence in the region; America is an intruder and has played a disruptive role. Uncle Sam’s unsatiated greed and brazen disregard for human life put it beyond the pale of civilized behavior.
Iran’s immediate objective is to deny the US the establishment of military bases in Afghanistan, some of them, such as Shindad and Herat, are close to its border. If allowed to establish such bases, these would mean nothing but trouble for Tehran. Since the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the US has repeatedly attempted to undermine the Islamic Republic. The Persian Gulf is already bristling with US warships whose sole objective is to make trouble for Iran. If the US plan to establish military bases in Afghanistan were frustrated, this would be a major achievement for Tehran.
Towards this end, Iran’s Defense Minister Ahmed Vahidi visited Kabul in mid-June. In addition to meeting Vice President Fahim, he also met Afghan Defence Minister Abdulrahim Wardak. “The great and brave nation of Afghanistan is capable of establishing its security in the best possible form without the interference of the trans-regional forces [meaning the US and NATO],” Vahidi told Fahim. To Wardak, Vahidi said, referring to the US: “Their presence hinders materialization of the will of the great, hard-working and resolute nation of Afghanistan and will cause discord, tension and insecurity and waste of the country’s capital.”
Interestingly, Wardak and Vahidi signed a document relating to bilateral security cooperation even while US and NATO troops are still in Afghanistan. At the signing ceremony, Wardak said: “Given the threats and challenges facing the region, we believe that joint defense and security cooperation between Iran and Afghanistan is very important for establishing peace and security in the region.” While vowing to increase defense and security ties with Iran, Wardak emphasized: “We believe that expansion of joint defense and security cooperation with Iran is in favor of our interests.” Nothing could be clearer about the direction the Karzai government is taking in view of recent developments and how it plans to proceed as the US endgame draws near.
Referring to US plans to destabilize Pakistan, President Ahmadinejad said during a press conference in Tehran on June 7 that Iran was in possession of “specific evidence” that the US was planning to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Regrettably, Pakistani officials, both civilian and military, have not given any indication, at least in public, that they take this warning seriously. They may do so now in view of US-NATO provocations across the Afghan-Pakistan border. Hitherto, the Americans complained about cross-border infiltration of Taliban fighters; now they are attacking Pakistani positions and villages from the other side of the border to exert pressure on Pakistan.
Even in its dying days, the American Empire is capable of causing much damage to those it perceives as threatening its interests. For Washington, these interests are sacrosanct. Iran was always targeted because it broke out of the Western-imposed political order in the region; now Afghanistan and Pakistan have also fallen in the same category. It is for the leaders of the three countries to work together and frustrate American designs for their common interests.