The Iranian Influence in Afghanistan
by AMIR BAGHERPOUR and ASAD FARHAD in Kabul, Afghanistan
09 Aug 2010 20:05
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