Khyber Space

Afghanistan: It's what's for dinner. (side dishes include Iran and Pakistan)

Belated Promise Ring

As the US inches closer to the 2014 pull out deadline, some serious questions are being asked about the continuing role America will have in the region. The only thing we know for sure is that there will be some kind of commitment to finding and ‘neutralizing’ terrorists. But aside from that vague commitment, it seems everything else is on the table for discussion, modification or reevaluation.

Seemingly absent from this conversation at the highest levels is reexamining the United States’ relationship with Pakistan. While it’s no secret that Afghanistan will struggle mightily with development without the help of regional partners, the US’s selection of Pakistan as the primary partner is baffling.

Pakistan made clear it’s goals with regards to Afghanistan 1. Keep India out, 2. Placate Pashtun’s in Pakistan by giving them a state in Afghanistan, and 3. Using it as a proving/training ground for ‘irregular forces’ ultimately destined for Kashmir.

See anything about the future political or economic stability for Afghanistan in there? Yeah, me neither.

It’s no secret that Pakistan is the main supporter of the Taliban (Understatement of the century). Remind me again who the people are perpetrating acts of terror inside Afghanistan? Right, the very same Taliban. What was the US’s agenda in Afghanistan post 2014? Fight terrorism.

So, the US wants to fight terrorism, but gives support to and cooperates with Pakistan, who funds, equips and gives safe haven to the Taliban who are perpetrating acts of terror. Doctor, my head.

Of course, this isn’t news. It’s nothing that hasnt been said before by the Afghan Twitterati, the academics, etc.

However, US policy makers throw their hands up and say: “Who ELSE are we going to work with?”

The answer? Iran.

Yep. Iran.

Let it sink in for a moment.

Now, let’s break down the possibilities of Iran, US cooperation in Afghanistan. First, it’s not new. Following the US Invasion of 2001, Iran generously offered the US help in it’s military campaign. Going so far as to unfurl a map in the UN’s 6+2 group on Afghanistan and point to the Taliban positions the US needed to bomb in order to give the Northern Alliance victory. Iran also has a long history of fighting against the Taliban. Throughout the 90s Iran funded the Northern Alliance (working WITH India as opposed to against it), and had a strong anti-Taliban stance (They were a hair’s breadth away from invading Afghanistan in 1998 after the Taliban executed some Iranian diplomats). So, what happened to the US-Iran love? That whole Axis of Evil thing didnt really sit well in Tehran. So they pulled the plug on the help.

Now, I’m sure the skeptics are saying whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s Iran’s agenda in this whole mix? Isn’t this the great exporter of terrorism and the US’s main foil in the region? Well, in a word: yes. But haven’t you ever heard of those ideas just crazy enough to work?

First, Iran has no interest in a weak Afghanistan. A huge portion of the opium grown in Afghanistan ends up in Iran, and a huge portion of Afghan refugees (especially non-Pashtuns) also end up in Iran. A stronger Afghan government that can provide basic services and security to it’s citizens while maintaining it’s borders helps Iran immensely. Also, Afghanistan has long been a market for Iranian goods, it doesnt take an economist to figure out that stability=stronger economy=buying more stuff. And with sanctions coming down hard and fast on Iran, it needs all the markets it can get.

Speaking of sanctions, some good faith cooperation on Afghanistan would help break the ice on other major issues dividing Iran and the United States. It might also force the two sides closer together, as there would surely need to be some kind of diplomatic mission based in Iran to coordinate any combined or cooperative ventures.

And there is little fear of Iran suddenly colluding with the Taliban since both the Taliban and Tehran view the other as anathema. Iran also has shown more willingness to cooperate with the other major players in the region including the CARs, Russia, China and India than has Pakistan.

Iran is that girl the US let get away. The relationship was steamy, but short. But you opted for the ‘safe’ choice. The girl you saw yourself settling down with (that’s Pakistan), but as soon as you settled down, she unleashed a whole bunch of crazy. Now you’re back on the market, and you notice Iran is single…Do you swallow pride, pick up the phone and admit you were wrong?

My advice: It’s never too late for that belated promise ring.


6 comments on “Belated Promise Ring

  1. Cassy
    April 5, 2013

    It’ll be interesting to see how Washington and Tehran relationships would go in the near future. Iran has clear motives as to why they would want to intervene in Afghanistan, it is safe to say Iran would play a key role to help resolve the issue.

  2. Daniel Hansen
    April 5, 2013

    You make some interesting points. But I think you could clarify a couple of details. First, how do you see that the US can engage and cooperate with Iran on Afghanistan without compromising the US position of sanctions regarding their atomic program? Or are you simply saying that we should abandon the anti-Iran sanctions in order to pursue cooperation on Afghanistan?

    Second, what exactly are you saying we should do in regards to Pakistan? I get the impression you are saying we should cut ties and pull the plug on our relationship, and focus on India and Iran as partners in this regard, although you don’t say specifically so I cannot be sure. I think it is important to realize of course, that certainly while Pakistan has not been a very good partner in this (you are correct in stating that they support some (not necessarily all) Taliban/extremist groups in Pakistan). Yet, at the same time, they haven’t been completely uncooperative either. If they chose to, they could substantially curtail our operations within their borders (drone strikes), and this would be an enormous problem for our security interests. So, I’m not sure how you suggest to deal with that and it seems to me, while the current strategy is less than ideal, it also is not the worst of options (let us say, it may be the least bad option).

    What are your thoughts on these points?

    • khyberspace
      April 5, 2013

      I think that the US’s all or nothing stare down with Iran has produced little. I dont think that they should abandon the nuclear talks, but they’ve been at an impasse for some time. So instead of focusing on what CAN’T be done, focus on what CAN be done and that’s cooperate on an area of common interest. If the US and Iran can work together on Afghanistan it could open the door to lessening sanctions and ultimately having a more productive nuclear conversation.

      Honestly, I DO think we should cut ties to Pakistan. Aside from all of the issues listed above, Pakistan has rash instability and hasn’t really made a good faith effort to curb extremism (Are we really to believe NO ONE in the Pakistani government know Osama Bin Laden was hiding out there?).

      I think you bring up an excellent point when you mention drones. The Pakistani government hates the fact that the US uses drones without seeking Pakistani approval first. But the US doesnt seek Pakistani approval because they are afraid the info will leak to the targets of the drone attacks. Not exactly a reliable partner.

      Until Pakistan is faced with the real threat of losing US aid, they won’t take any substantive steps to getting a grip on their country. All of their bad behavior has been rewarded thus far, so why discontinue it?

      • Daniel Hansen
        April 5, 2013

        So, I don’t necessarily disagree with you on the Iran issue except that, do you think Iran would be willing to cooperate with us given the pressure we are trying to place on them? I feel like they would insist on concessions first, but I could be wrong.

        On the Pakistan point, while yes the US is concerned about leaks, the Pakistani government could clearly take stronger action to prevent us from using drones on their territory in the first place. While we don’t notify them of specific targets, they do implicitly allow us to use drone in specific regions. They decry it publicly, but they give us the green light behind the scenes. So if they wanted to they could cut that tacit approval, or worse if they really feel they have no reason to even “pretend” to be cooperative with us, then they could even deploy military assets to circumscribe our operations there. Again, I think this would be the worst of all scenarios, and is the reason why we haven’t pulled the plug. So you are right they are not a reliable partner, but they are the one nation that could really make things a whole lot worse for us.

        Anyways, I like your blog! I look forward to seeing more from you in the future.

      • khyberspace
        April 5, 2013

        I think Iran would be willing to make some sacrifices for the benefits I laid out in the original post. It would be a slow process because trust between Tehran and Washington would be thin on the ground, but I think eventually cooperation could occur.

        I see your point on Pakistan and the drones, but there is much evidence that suggests that drones actually do more to militarize groups and civilians against The United States than actually neutralize any real threat. Would it hurt a little in the Global War on Terror to lose drone capability in Pakistan? Surely. But would the long term ramifications be dire? Most likely not.

        Step one in eliminating the threat of terrorism is to stabilize the region. Iran is, at present, more stable than Pakistan and has a real interest in a stable Afghanistan. Pakistan needs to be held accountable for its misbehavior and only the US can do it.

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