Balancing Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan

Published: November 6, 2010
The writer is a Fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University, Canada

The writer is a Fellow with the Centre for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University, Canada [email protected]

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.

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Reader Comments (4)

  • faraz
    Nov 7, 2010 - 12:19AM

    How much control do we have over taliban? Its debatable. Considering the destruction caused by pakistani taliban, i am not sure of the apparently total control of our establishment over its proxies. Besides the military, there are other powerful groups in Pakistan who would support taliban at all cost. This formula of – weakened taliban minus international jihadius sharing power with Northern Alliance – is hard to implement. Recommend

  • Esther Haman
    Nov 7, 2010 - 1:32AM

    One thing is clear and that is Iran was helping the Afghans fight the Al-Qaida army lead by Bin-Laden way before Pakistan tried to recognize that these murderers are her enemy as well as ours. Iran’s support of the Northern army under then Masoud Shah helped prevent the 911 for several years (without our help). While Pakistan’s assistance to Bin-Laden and the Talibans caused the 911 and the current war.

    The Pakistanis should not be trusted in a long run and any deal in Afghanistan that would allow any power sharing which would include Taliban. That is a failure and a mistake, for us and the region. Iran is the only capable nation in that region which has shown consistence and full leadership with an intelligence approach to any crisis that has resin. We are fool to trust the future of that region to Pakistan and Afghanistan just to leave Iran out of the picture.Recommend

  • Nov 7, 2010 - 7:32AM

    A regional security architecture in South and south west Asia is a good idea which needs to be pursued for that would reduce the numerous conventional and sub conventional contests in teh region be it between Iran and Pakistan or India and Pakistan. The problem is that these three pivotal states in the region have been playing out their respected strategies in a smaller great game within the overall larger great game of the major powers, US, Russia, EU and NATO. Now that the NATO and Russia are getting closer at least overtly, there is hope for a regional security architecture to emerge between Iran, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. History denotes that such a structure has led to detente in Europe which had suffered the vestiges of two bloody world wars. Thus there can be hope of evolving such a structure in the South Asian region as well. The problem is who will take the initiative.Recommend

  • Don
    Nov 8, 2010 - 5:03AM

    I am opposed to both legal and illegal immigration. This country is overpopulated, and 21 million Americans are out of work.Recommend

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