The Obama administration is searching for an exit from Afghanistan while American intelligence agrees that the insurgency has not suffered any major setbacks. In sum, there is no military victory to be had in Afghanistan.
Pakistan is a pivot for American withdrawal. Washington hopes that Pakistan will be its enforcer in Afghanistan, taming the Taliban and keeping out transnational jihadists that might present a terrorist threat to the US. In return, Pakistan’s military will continue to receive aid.
However, Pakistan’s freewheeling on the Taliban has shifted the US position away from allowing Pakistan free reign in Afghanistan. The US is now drawing in Iran to counter Pakistani influence. This shift was signalled when, for the first time, Iran was invited to join international talks on Afghanistan in Rome. When details of Iran’s cash payments to Afghan President Hamid Karzai emerged, the US did not question Iran’s right to provide aid, recognising its prerogative in buying influence in Kabul. The US has made a further concession by listing the anti-Iranian Jundallah as a terrorist organisation. And backchannel US-Iran talks continue. This may be one of the reasons behind Prime Minister Gilani’s dour reiteration recently, that peace in Afghanistan is impossible without Pakistan’s help.
In the early 1990s, Iran and Pakistan cooperated in forming the first post-communist interim government in Kabul. But for much of the remainder of the decade they stood in opposite corners. Pakistan backed the Pashtun Taliban. Threatened by their militant Sunni Islam, Iran founded the Northern Alliance, a motley grouping of Afghanistan’s many ethnic minority groups holding the anti-Taliban line in the north of the country.
However, Pakistan no longer wishes for the Taliban to hold unbridled power in Afghanistan, particularly while it faces its own Islamist insurgency. It now reaches out to Afghanistan’s minorities and is steadily improving ties with Karzai’s government. Iran, meanwhile, has maintained relations with the former Northern Alliance, but has also cultivated ties amongst the Taliban, while simultaneously wooing Kabul.
Pakistan and Iran present contrasting models of an Islamic Republic — the former a confessional democracy, the latter a theocracy. Their competition, including for regional influence, has fuelled war and extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. But a post-occupation balance of power in Afghanistan between Pashtuns and ethnic minorities, held together by a negotiated representational government in Kabul, could be underwritten by the regional counterbalance between Iran and Pakistan. With a nuanced view of their interests, Iran and Pakistan can contribute to collective security, providing Afghans with breathing room to determine their political future. This requires Pakistan’s Bonapartist military to hang up its hegemonic ambitions in Afghanistan, easing Iran’s paranoia about the Taliban as a destabilising tool wielded by Pakistan, or even, ironically, the US (for as with the Peoples Mujahedin of Iran, terrorist organisations sometimes become less terrifying for the West once they prove useful against Iran). Pakistan and Iran must both look to a regionally guaranteed stability as the occupation in Afghanistan ends. And end it must, for despite General Petraeus’ war-fever, the US cannot afford the opportunity cost of an open-ended commitment. Neither can Iran, and least of all, Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 7th, 2010.