Friday, August 10, 2007

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Iran and Afghanistan (and Pakistan)

Earlier this week President Bush differed with Afghan leader Hamid Karzai over whether Iran was a positive influence in Afghanistan (for more background click here and here).

Given this rare disagreement, it's worth checking the situation on the ground. And, hey, what do you know, the Christian Science Monitor did that very thing, sending Mark Sappenfield to the western Afghan city of Herat (side note: the CSM's international coverage is criminally underrated).

And what did Sappenfield find?:

In many places, paved roads, clean sidewalks, constant power, and relative security would be considered modest achievements. But in Afghanistan, they make Herat a model for what the country could someday become. The city is a window on how Afghan entrepreneurism can take hold when given the time and security to flourish – and what role Afghanistan's neighbors can play in helping to create these conditions....

Where once spices and camels found passage through this parched desert outpost, now cars and televisions from the Middle East are taxed in its customs houses, generating the wealth for what one expert calls the Dubai of Afghanistan.

"This is the culture of the people of Herat, and this is the positive influence of Iran," says Mohammed Rafiq Shahir, president of the Council of Professionals, a group of analysts and businesspeople here.

In contrast with Pakistani border areas, which have been overrun by the Taliban, Herat – just 75 miles from the Iranian border – has flourished with the help of Iran, one of the Karzai government's strongest supporters. In Herat, for example, Iran has linked the city to the Iranian power grid and built a highway to the border.

More important, the border areas have been largely peaceful, allowing Herat to concentrate on what it does best: business. Since 2001, Herat has attracted $350 million in private investment for industry – more than any other Afghan city, including Kabul, which is some 10 times larger. In total, 250 medium- and large-scale factories have been built in Herat, according to the Afghan Investment Support Agency. The northern city of Mazar-e Sharif comes second with 100 fewer.

It is a legacy of Herat's location. As a trading hub for more than a millennium, Herat has always had money. By some estimates, the money collected at customs houses in Herat is Afghanistan's largest source of revenue, bringing in $1 million a day in duties on goods imported from Iran and Turkmenistan....

In the shade of Khorasan Street, beneath tarps strung from second-floor windows to offer relief from the desert sun, Herati shopkeepers say they are eager for Afghan-made products. Among the multicolored boxes and bottles that look like a rainbow avalanche of soaps, shampoos, and cookie wrappers, merchants say many of the goods were made locally.

"Compared with the past, we have fewer things from Iran and we have more things from Afghanistan," says Abdul Qader, a shopkeeper.

I don't want to defend Iran too vociferously, but it appears that the worst thing you can say about Tehran's relationship with the Taliban is that it's not as hostile as it was when the Taliban actually controlled Afghanistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan has a far more destabilizing relationship with Afghanistan than Iran.

Note to President Bush: There's enough actual evidence to show that the Iranian regime is a bad actor in the region. Please stop ginning up bogus claims to pile on.

Please, leave Iran alone. Focus on Pakistan instead.

posted by Dan on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM


"Note to President Bush: There's enough actual evidence to show that the Iranian regime is a bad actor in the region. Please stop ginning up bogus claims to pile on."

Ho-hum. Let's go to the tape.

"Iranian armor-piercing bombs used with deadly effect in Iraq now are being smuggled into Afghanistan for use by the Taliban, it was reported Sunday.

"It is clear to everyone that Iran is supporting the enemy of Afghanistan, the Taliban," Col. Rahmatullah Safi, the head of border police for western Afghanistan, told The Sunday Times of London.

A Baluch tribesman in southern Afghanistan is believed to be the middle man between Iran and the Taliban, Afghan intelligence sources told The Times. The middle man also uses Iran as the central point for heroin smuggled out of Afghanistan to Europe, the report said.

Col. Thomas Kelly, a U.S. Army commander with NATO, said the armor-piercing weapons crossing the border appear factory made.

"These are very sophisticated (improvised explosive devices) and they're really not manufactured in any other place to our knowledge than Iran," Kelly said."

"Ahmed Rashid, a journalist from Pakistan and author of the book "Taliban," has been reporting on Afghanistan since 1979. He tells RFE/RL that he is certain that Iran is also supporting factional warlords and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan."

"RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sharafudeen Stanikzai has documented and photographed Iranian-produced land mines and other weapons that are being used by militants in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran."

" “Our purpose is jihad against foreigners and the government of Afghanistan,” he said, asking that he name not be used.

And, he claimed, he was hardly alone in his cause.

“There are a lot of Iranians in our group,” he said. “They say they have come to do jihad against America.”

The comments by this resident of Farah Province, which borders Iran, are just the latest indication that Iran is playing a growing role in the insurgency in Afghanistan. The young insurgent identified himself as a member of Soldiers of Mohammad the Prophet, a jihadi organization that, he said, is supported by Iran."

But let's listen to the CSM reporter based on a walkabout through one city. Seems to me Iran has more control over Herat than does Kabul. There are towns and villages along the Iranian/Iraqi border than are de facto Iranian towns that have been used as staging grounds and safe harbor for insurgents. Of course they're not going to start blowing things up there. They send people elsewhere to blow things up.

posted by: Dan on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

Now, the next time you hear Dear Leader say, I listen to the generals on the ground, don't you believe it.
When are you going to realize, this president does not let the facts get in the way of his thinking.

posted by: Pritesh on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM [permalink]


"British troops in Helmand province fighting the Taliban face a new danger as sophisticated Iranian weapons and explosives are being smuggled into Afghanistan.

In the dusty frontier town of Islam Qala, near Herat, on the Afghan side of the border with Iran, weapons and explosives such as armour-piercing roadside bombs are being trafficked to the insurgents. "

posted by: Dan on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

Actually, this sounds like a values disagreement. Iran is apparently using both carrots and sticks in Afghanistan. Bush focuses on the sticks, Karzai on the carrots. Not surprising, since the US isn't particularly helped by strengthening trade between Afghanistan and Iran, while the Iranian supply of sophisticated IEDs is a major concern for US forces. Karzai and Bush do not share identical interests, it is not necessarily a sign of ignorance or mendacity that they each total up a list of pluses and minuses and reach a different conclusion.

posted by: rbeypw on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM [permalink]


I'd agree with that. But there's also the fact that Kazai knows we're not going to do anything about Iran except have Rice scold them a little more, so why should Karai piss off a neighbor that he needs to make nice with? If he were to say Iran was causing trouble there's not a thing he could do about it, and there's not a thing the US is willing to do about it.

People seem to think the only options are frenzied "diplomacy" as you watch Iran pull the wool over your eyes or invading and overthrowing - or even just bombing. Dan doesn't want to invade Iran. Fair enough. His solution? Ignore them until they go away. There are options in between. Problem is no one has bothered to put any thought into it to figure out what they are.

posted by: Dan on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

I should add, this is probably one of the biggest failing in American foreign policy (and in other countries as well). People know something's going on, but they don't like the most obvious solution: some kind of military action. Sometimes this military action might be necessary, othertimes there might be other options. But due to a complete failure of imagination, they instead choose to stick their heads in the sand and pretend nothing is happening, despite the piles of evidence to the contrary.

This explains, among other events: Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, North Korea and Iran getting nuclear programs, about 80% of all realist foreign policy "thinking" in the post-Cold War era, and now Iran trying to destabilize Iraq and Afghanistan.

posted by: Dan on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

Looking at a map, it all becomes clear suddenly. Iran apparently borders Iraq and Afghanistan.

posted by: Condor on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

Gee Dan (the commenter) (although maybe its a sock puppet) since the end of the Cold War the US

invaded Iraq and withdrew
sent troops into Somalia
occupied Haiti
bombed one side in the Bosnian civil war
bombed Serbia , taking sides against a sovereign state in a secessionist conflict
invaded and occupied Afghanistan
invaded and occupied Iraq

I have a feeling I am missing one or two minor actions, and leaving out major numbers of 'advisors' in places like the Philippines and Columbia

Now, whatever one may think of any of the above actions, one thing you can't say is that the US is ignoring the military option.

posted by: Mitchell Young on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

Even if Iran were to start being a good neighbor, would that stabilize the region? Unlikely, Israel's behavior in the West Bank is still likely to annoy the Arabs. The Saudis are just as likely to continue to export their intolerant version of Islam. Syria will still be messing around in Lebanon. The naive idea that, "Well, if Iran just behaves, then you can have peace." is the current version of "If we just get rid of Saddam, we can have peace."

As for Pakistan, it is important to distinguish the threats to Musharaff, and the threats to the Pakistani state. While Musharaff is increasingly vunerable, the Pakistani state will survive, as dysfunctional and broken down as it can be at times. Musharaff's grip on power is not under threat from Islamists (as Clinton claimed at the recent AFL-CIO debate in Chicago), but by civilian-based groups that have grown weary of 8 year military rule.

posted by: KXB on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

"Where once spices and camels found passage through this parched desert outpost, now cars and televisions from the Middle East are taxed in its customs houses..."
Now that's progress, by golly!
More cars! TV!
CNN and gasoline!

posted by: Roy Belmont on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

Iran is simply trying to control the border area, including Herat, to reduce the smuggling of narcotics into Iran. Iran's behavior has nothing to do with "being a good neighbor"

posted by: Alain on 08.10.07 at 08:39 AM [permalink]

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