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The Iranian Influence in Afghanistan

by AMIR BAGHERPOUR and ASAD FARHAD in Kabul, Afghanistan

09 Aug 2010 20:0523 Comments
afsoldiers.jpgInterests overlap with America's, but cooperation remains a distant dream.

After spending several weeks in Kabul, one can hardly deny the extent of Iranian influence in Afghanistan. As a major player in the region, Iran has a vital stake in how its Afghan neighbors are governed. I paid closer attention to this after spending several days with an elite Afghan commando unit tasked with guarding a key site for high-level meetings. These commandos had been trained not only by U.S. Special Forces, but also by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the highly skilled paramilitary group accused of arming and training the Shia insurgents in Iraq.

Once we had established a certain level of trust, two of the Afghan commandos revealed to me that under their uniforms hung necklaces bearing portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. These two soldiers were Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley, known for its fierce resistance to Soviet occupation and among the few areas that maintained autonomy under Taliban rule. "We have close relationships with the Iranians," one commando said, "but the biggest challenge to stability is the Afghan government itself."

This exchange compelled me to look deeper into Iran's role in Afghanistan. Later that same week, I interviewed a key advisor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai about Iranian influence in his country. "They are highly involved officially and unofficially," he reluctantly acknowledged. "I do not think this government can succeed unless Iran is at the table." The advisor continued, "Although there is some animosity toward the Iranians, it is far less than any animosity shown toward Pakistan and perhaps America."

Economic Interests and Cultural Ties

As neighbors with similar dialects and much in common historically, the cultural ties between Iran and Afghanistan run deep. Afghanistan's third largest city, Herat, situated just 80 miles from the Iranian border, was the capital of the Persian Empire in the 15th century. More recently, Iran has extended its electricity grid to the city, funded cooperative highway projects with India, and is even partnering with NATO members on construction of an Iran-Afghanistan railway.

These modern ties are validated by Iran's support for ethnic Shia minorities such as Hazaras and Tajiks. Since 2001, Tehran has contributed more than half a billion dollars in humanitarian assistance to displaced Afghan minorities. In fact, Iran is home to approximately two million Afghan refugees, a major problem magnified by U.N.-imposed sanctions and inflationary stresses. In spite of internal domestic pressure to deport Afghan illegals, Tehran has agreed to slow the process until their Afghan neighbors sees some semblance of political stabilization.

Yet the socioeconomic problems Afghanistan confronts revolve not so much around the flow of refugees as they do around the flow of illicit drugs. As opium production has risen in Afghanistan, so too has usage in Iran. The Iranian government is faced with a population of nearly four million opium addicts -- a number that continues to rise. A recent world drug report estimated that Iran accounts for nearly 40 percent of global opium usage. Aside from fueling this addiction problem, profits from the opium trade provides funds for Taliban insurgents.

Security Interests and Iranian Restraint

In 1998, the killing of 11 Iranian diplomats and the mass murder of thousands of Shia Muslims by the Taliban nearly prompted Iran to invade. Tens of thousands of Iranian troops amassed at the Afghan border in preparation for an attack. Iranian commanders, surveying the dusty, barren landscape, ultimately decided not to proceed. In the final analysis, Tehran calculated that the cost of fighting the Taliban would far outweigh any benefit of occupying Afghanistan, at that time the poorest country in the world. By practicing restraint in the circumstance, the Iranians demonstrated that they were rational political actors, a fact rarely reported at a time when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's remarks make them appear anything but.

Iran kept tens of thousands of troops to guard the border and today commits nearly 10 percent of its conscripted soldiers to the task. Instead of initiating a conventional war, Iran has waged what former CIA officer Bob Baer calls a war by proxy, supplying and training what is today commonly known as the Northern Alliance. The leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives in 2001 but his influence remains strong -- a national holiday, Massoud Day, is now observed in his honor.

During the rule of the Taliban and ever since, Iran has pursued a strategy of supporting Afghan minorities, both Shia and Sunni. Although the plurality of Afghans are Pashtun Sunnis, Iran commands significant influence over the Shia population, which accounts for 19 percent of the country's people. Furthermore, the Iranians have established a network of support among Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tajiks -- together, the three ethnic groups make up 30 percent of the population. This network played a central role in the overthrow of the Taliban following 9/11. Although no foreign or domestic player commands the loyalty of a majority in the country, Iran is a long-term player in Afghanistan with influence at least equal to and arguably greater than that of Pakistan or the United States.

Over the past 30 years, Iran has craftily managed its relationship with its eastern neighbor. The border is relatively stable and secure compared to the unruly, highly volatile frontier Afghanistan shares with Pakistan. Whether opposing Soviet occupation or responding to Taliban rule, Iran has acted carefully. It has a policy of, first, minimizing the cost of conflict and, second, maximizing the chances for success -- known as the minimum-maximum strategy. This strategy is exemplified by its arming and training of guerrilla forces, even as it avoids conventional military engagement. Pakistan's support for the Taliban, reflecting a similar strategy, has not proved as fruitful. And although the Afghan-Pakistani border involves complex tribal networks plagued with extremist ideologies, Tehran has clearly been more wise in dealing with Afghanistan than has Pakistan, with its destabilizing, self-destructive behavior.

And not all of Iran's aggressive engagement is purely by proxy. Last year in Kabul, Ambassador Fada Hossein Maleki walked from the Iranian Embassy to the Indian Embassy to demand a halt in the construction of the Salma Dam, a $150 million Indian-funded construction project 112 miles from Herat. In the Iranian view, the Salma Dam would reduce the flow of river water into Iran. In October, an Afghan police commander tasked with protecting the dam testified before the country's Parliament on Iranian intentions to sabotage the project if it is not halted.

Common Concerns, Deep Divide

The recent leak of classified U.S. Department of Defense documents has exposed the thinly veiled fact that Pakistani intelligence has been arming and supporting the Taliban and other anti-American elements. This places the United States in a precarious position. Afghanistan's largest neighbor and supposed U.S. ally is actually opposed to the American effort and the current Karzai government. Though on the surface, the United States maintains a partnership with Pakistan, after peeling away the propaganda it is clear that their preferences are in stark opposition.

By contrast, Iranian desires in Afghanistan are much more aligned with vital U.S. interests. Iran opposes the Taliban and other Sunni extremists just as much as the Americans do. In addition, Tehran prefers a stabilized Afghanistan that will curb the flow of refugees and ultimately reduce its need to maintain security forces at the border. The Ahmadinejad regime is also opposed to the opium trade that is financing insurgent groups while further fueling the addiction problem in Iran.

The point is that cooperation with Iran can benefit Afghanistan and the United States in ways that partnering with Pakistan simply has not and cannot. But over the past year, the war drums have begun to beat once again, raising the possibility of military conflict between Iran and the United States over Tehran's controversial nuclear program. And although cooperation could benefit both countries in unprecedented ways, historical grievances and mutual distrust have locked the United States into a mindset that makes cooperation impossible to conceive. Meanwhile Iran continues to be battered by economic sanctions and internal political strife.

A high-ranking Afghan official explained the situation well: "The United States is going fox hunting while riding an elephant. We all know that hunting a fox is best achieved by setting traps and not by chasing them with elephants. They can learn a thing or two from the Iranians." It's a fair analogy. The estimated annual cost for each American soldier in Afghanistan is nearly $1 million. The total cost since 2001 exceeds $300 billion. Despite this massive expenditure, the United States is certainly not accomplishing its goals. Perhaps it should dismount the elephant and seek to work with Iran in a partnership that could mutually benefit the long-time adversaries.

Amir Bagherpour is a Ph.D. candidate at the Claremont School of Politics and Economics. He is a West Point graduate and former officer in the U.S. Army. Mr. Bagherpour also holds an MBA from UC Irvine. He has recently returned from Afghanistan after conducting field research and interviewing key members of the Afghan government.

Asad Farhad is a language instructor at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. He served as the Deputy Minister of Customs for Afghanistan from 2003 to 2009. He is a graduate of American University in Beirut and holds a master's in public administration from SUNY Albany.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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23 Comments

This article is highly flawed and presents nonsense rather than facts. The overwhelming majority of Tajiks in Afghanistan adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam. Very few Tajikis are Shi'ite. So why do you make the false statement that Tajiks are a 'Shia minority' ??.

Please dont write fantasy and try to pass it off as legitimate journalism. Get your facts straight first before writing on any given topic. Thank you.

Tajik / August 9, 2010 10:32 PM

Very interesting stuff! Very well presented! Good Work!

Jack Styskal / August 9, 2010 10:32 PM

He saying there are not many of them. However, there are Shia Tajik. The majority of Tajiks are Sunni but there ARE Shi'ite Tajiks. That's what he's saying, so I would say he has his facts straight.

CoolHandAvster / August 9, 2010 11:40 PM

I would say he knows what he's talking about. Re-read the article and feel bad accusing someone at this stature for writing "fantasy." I think the majority of people would agree that this article is right on.

Engaged, Voracious Reader / August 9, 2010 11:51 PM

Lemme guess the person who wrote this is from Iran?

bryanS / August 10, 2010 1:29 AM

My friend from Iran, returned to Iran to dispose of the family assets, because he fears israeli lobbyst possible successful efforts to get Americans further engaged in a conflict with Persia. And forsees serious devaluation and/or reallocation of assets, over there. He says the younger generations idolize american culture, (Internet) and imput from iranian americans, And the mullahs are doing some great things in " Persia " While he did not expand on their activities, and I did not ask if their nuclear activities are in response to pakistan, not in response to israels paranoia over the series of ongoing real estate wars, and admittedly genocide and mistreatment of palestinians.

What was significant to me was the idea that persia, while reorganized, assisted by outside influences, and conflicting idealogies of islam, causing me to actually read the quran, and while muhammads words are in continual conflict, its probably because muhammad himself wrote nothing, and the various sectors of the quran seem to be written by different authors, with differing interpretations of what he may have actually said, and the probability of adding their own preliterate idealogies. Which sounds interestingly familiar with differences in judaism, and those experienced by, original, christianity, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, reform christianities and the never ending expansion of variations of religious and control philosophies, for whatever predisposing influences.

While spending a few decades abroad and meeting peoples from the world over, I see a similiarity among most religions, governmental idealogies, seemingly based on absolutes, originating in times when our magnitudes of literacy, while somewhat based on our instrumentation and its exponential sequential increase in the number of word divisions which may have had significant origins in words of preliterate scribes, possibly writing up creeds to empower the kings and emperors in the bid for perpetual rule at the hand of their clans, are beyond actual comprehension of real meaning based on any form of valid premise, in these times, because we did not live then. And understand not, the word construct meanings.

And while people are all different from each other, yet may not be all that different from each other, if they had lived the others life, Its interesting to observe the effect instrumentation has on society, and for the very first time our magnitudes of literacy are all merging, in the peaceful information revolution, or not, on the worlds largest computer, the internet, electromagnetic spectrum (For want of a better word) where we have PC's, a binary computer combined with advanced optics-software-hardware, and each one are based upon computer architecture, developed by IBM from the worlds first silicon chip which was designed to replace the telephone switching stations, resulting in as many possible registers as possible, which are based on optical resolution in the number of electrons ( one millionth of an electron volt ) used to activate a single transistor, Influenced by continual increase of optical resolution, and materials.

The world of 2010, will be vastly different from the world of future times, as the young seem to all want to do the right things, and to accomplish this are forced to change from the ways of their forebearers. With access to one book, which obsoletes what some have identified as an academic caste system, which will fail when impaled upon information technologies ability to make decisions without the frailties of mankind, propelling the youth of the world together on one stage in the search for real truths, without undue influence of elitests and their status quo of belief systems, which falter in the face of " Truth " the absense of a lie, and based upon valid premise. Real, imagined, or envisioned.

Tell me again, where I go to get a degree in computer networking engineering ? And if you say metrology, now offered as an associates degree as basic repair and or the idea of embedding information technology into mechanical and chemical instrumentation, already performed by industry for decades, the world over, in a world where academia is the tale wagging the dog " " Industry "

" Watson " first generation next magnitude of computing, language as code, Admittedly related to dragon text developed for disabled peoples, and enabled by increases in magnitudes of optical resolution, on Alexander Graham Bell telephone of the 21st century.

Tell me again about the prophets and their future influence in comparison to the real variables involved in the reality of which your conjecture consists of.

Time changes all things, Ask my friend, the " Horse " , but not the " Bird " ha ha ha

jackie cox / August 10, 2010 3:26 AM

Who cares if the person who wrote this article is from Iran or not? This article is not about anyone's opinion. This is a fact-based article about what was seen, heard, and discussed. This article is about ones findings on their political trip to Afghanistan. If you look at the end of the article, you will see where the authors' credentials are from. These men are leaders, at the top of their class, and for good reason too. BEWARE OF INTELLIGENCE haha!

Nancy Ginger-Lee / August 10, 2010 4:13 AM

To respond to the first comment: It is true that very few Tajiks are Shia. In fact, most of them are Sunni. However, there are Shia Tajiks as a minority sub-group within Tajiks. I met several Tajiks in Afghanistan that happened to be Shia. I think the person reading the article mis-understood what we were saying. Thank you for the kind words.

Amir Bagherpour -- the author / August 10, 2010 4:53 AM

Interesting article.

It is, however, flawed in that it assumes the US wants the same thing as Iran. While Iran truely opposes the Taliban, United States under George H. W. Bush tried armed them and attempted to create a Sunni state that would in fact go to war with Iran. When all that failed, both by refusal of Taliban to allow the building of a gas pipeline in the summer of 2001, and the subsequent 9/11 attack, this nation invaded Afganistan. But the policy has not changed, the hope is that with enough pressure combined with negotiation, the Taliban will come to its senses and cooperate into what will be the ultimate US goal in the region: A Sunni vs Shiite conflict that would see Saudi Arabia backed by Israel and the US fighting proxy wars with Iran through the Taliban and even Iraq. Such a conflict would engulf the region and would allow the US to replace the Arab-Israeli conflict with the Arab-Iranian conflict that would ensure one hundred years of profitable conflicts to come. That is the final solution. That is why the nuclear issue will never be settled. Most Americans, including many journalists, seem to completely oblevious to the fact that the Afgan civil war, just like the Lebanese and Tajik civil wars, came to an end through a deal signed in Tehran in 1990. President Bush said: no deal reached in Tehran will be allowed to stand. Thus, the arming of the Taliban began. If they wanted peace and stability they would have taken the 1990 deal rather than destroy Afganistan. Interesting that Al-Qaeda killed the president of the new Afganistan, General Massoud (they did US's biding). Proxy wars, that's the goal!!

Pouya / August 10, 2010 9:10 AM

Apparently, Asad Farhad teaches at the facility where my nephew (USMC) studied Arabic. (Dari was actually his first choice)

Interesting article, by the way.

Pirouz / August 10, 2010 11:37 AM

Dear Amir,

Yes i did mis-understand at first the point you were making so please forgive the rude tone of my earlier comment.

And thank you for writing about the role Iran is playing in Afghanistan. Iran is Afghanistan's best neighbouring option to help thwart the Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors.

Tajik / August 10, 2010 3:37 PM

Interesting background on the situation. In regard to the conclusion: While a practical solution may be working with Iran, this will never occur as long as Iran's leaders (or leader) continue to snub their nose at the nuclear issue, and continue to call for the destruction of Israel (while denying the Holocaust).

Darren / August 10, 2010 7:58 PM

A precise and pointed article. We cannnot and should ignore Iran's role in Afghanistan and in the region as a whole. A wise man, would work with them, rather than against them.

TheGreyMan / August 10, 2010 9:32 PM

Darren,

Can you please refer me to where Iran's leaders called for the destruction of Israel?

Ahmadinejad said "the occupying regime of Jerusalem must be erased from the page of time," as in Soviet Union.

Personally, I'm tired of defending Ahmadinejad (because I really can't stand him either) to American idiots who repeat like mindless parrots the nonsense that the American media vomits out of its mouth.

B / August 10, 2010 9:50 PM

B

Iran's leaders, the ruling mullahs, or Ayatollahs, say such things at every friday prayer. Lots of video on the youtube. The supporters of the ruling Iranian mullahs will debate the translation from Farsi into English until kingdom come. The "death to america, death to Israel chants" are still very common and pretty well documented. That chant is pretty hard to obfuscate with inane arguements about translation.

muhammad billy bob / August 11, 2010 12:59 AM

Muhammad Billy Bob

The only thing innane is your name.

And your "marg bar..." comment is fair enough. And so it's only fair on my part to bring up John "Bomb, bomb, Iran" McCain, Sarah "attacking Iran can get Obama reelected" Palin, Donald "let's divert attention from Iraq and put the pressure on Iran" Rumsfeld, etc. etc.

And yes, these are just statements. Let's talk about actions. What about the support Saddam got to fight against the Iranians? Chemical attacks weren't so bad then? What about the billions in weapons sold to the Saudis?

This list goes on friend. And Iran does the same. So don't play the victim. America and Israel have a lot more in common with Iran than you allow yourself believe.

B / August 11, 2010 3:37 AM

B

I wasn't playing the victim. You asked where one could find comments from Iran's leaders about Israel. On youtube.

Btw, Sarah Palin and Don Rumsfeld hold no office in the U.S. And Mccain is one of 535.

muhammad billy bob / August 11, 2010 7:52 PM

Moe William Robert:

H. Res. 1553 - Green lighting Israeli attack signed by American congressmen.

It's not just one person.

It's coming from both sides and Darren (and apparently you too) don't see that.

B / August 11, 2010 10:56 PM

B,

It will not come anywhere close to being passed. Neither will the bills introduce by Rep. Paul, or many others.

muhammad billy bob / August 12, 2010 12:01 AM

Just to add another thing: Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks make up far more than 30% of the population. The number is closer to 50%.

Andrew / August 12, 2010 3:00 AM

Question on Amir Bagherpour's credentials- How long did you serve in the U.S. Army after graduating from West Point? Did you serve in Afghanistan to see first hand how the U.S. military/nation building strategy has evolved?

past_skeleton / August 15, 2010 8:21 AM

more of a fiction than fact. Iran influence is limited ti shia population i.e hazara tribes her role to influence future course of afghan politics will remain limited

bubly / August 19, 2010 3:17 AM

Good article, Surprised not mention how Iran Helped U.S to topple Taliban’s government in Afghanistan. And Iran got a good gesture from George W. Bush by being called a part of Axle of Evils. The part about some commandos wearing Khomeini’s picture around their neck could be an exaggeration on the part of the writer to make it spicy, or some misrepresentation from commandos to the writer. Khomeini may be in their mind, but putting the picture around their neck is another story! Also the writer did not mention that not even one citizen from Afghanistan or Iraq participated in dreadful 9-11 attack. Another point that was worth writing about is the fact: Taliban project was brain child of CIA, with the Saudis money and execution of Pakistani Intelligence service. It just back fired, like Noriega in Panama and Saddam in Iraq. This is a flat world now; nothing gets hidden in the other side.
Also it is interesting to see, some of commentators on the article are talking about patriotism. Writing a good article does not need patriotism, it needs truthfulness. And it seems Amir within his ability and limitations, writing for a western minded audience tried to be as truthful as possible. I admire that. Wearing the Khomeini’s picture around the neck is not that important. What goes in the minds, which is harder to detect is what makes the future.

Perry / August 20, 2010 1:21 PM