Afghanistan is described as the Graveyard of Empires. The new US administration of Barack Obama expressed its concern regarding the dangerous situation in Afghanistan and this concern is only likely to increase as the winter season comes to an end and military operations between the two sides, that is the Taliban and the Allied Forces, are expected to resume.
It was apparent that the 45th Security Conference that was held in Munich at the beginning of February focused on finding a way out of the Afghan quagmire and an alternative route for weapon supplies because Pakistan is now vulnerable to all kinds of threats.
On January 26 in the Belgian capital of Brussels, NATO’s Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called upon the United States and NATO member states to deal directly with Iran in order to build a regional consensus that would include Afghanistan, India, China and Iran. He also called upon NATO states to cooperate with Iran bilaterally so as to find an alternative supply route for NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan.
For a long time, US military and NATO figures have striven to come up with an alternative supply route for Afghanistan because the [current] routes pass through the seaport of Karachi, or Khyber or Chaman to reach Afghanistan. Despite that they are short and inexpensive, they have become very dangerous. Today, airplanes are being launched from US aircraft carriers located in the sea to accompany freighters transporting weapons and protect them from any potential attacks from the Pakistani Taliban and Jihadists. The US military leadership considered routes via Central Asia or the Caucuses and saw that the closest point is the Port of Chah-Bahar in Iran.
Iran feels that the time is right for it to contact its enemies i.e. the United States and the Taliban, as both parties require its help in dealing with the other. But if NATO member states such as Italy and Canada agree to transporting supplies through the port of Chah-Bahar to the NATO bases in Herat and Kandahar then these supplies might be subjected to attacks or might be stolen in Nimruz by Iranian-backed armed militants. This is what happened to British forces in Basra, south Iraq; they were subjected to attacks at the hands of armed militants supported by Iran. Iran is turning a blind eye to the activity of extremist elements in the Taliban in the Afghan provinces of Farah and Nirmuz and in most cases these [elements] seek refuge in Baloch regions in Iran. Some armed groups in northwest Afghanistan have excellent ties with Iran and receive weapons and ammunition from it in order to confront NATO forces in Afghanistan.
After Scheffer’s statement, General David Petraeus, Commander of the US Central Command said that Iran and the US have common interests in [stabilizing] Afghanistan. That was followed by the US Department of Treasury’s decision to add the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) to the list of terrorist organizations. This party, the members of which are Iranian Kurds, launches attacks every now and then inside Iran and its target is to overthrow the Imamate regime in that country. However, this step does not eliminate the internal concern in Iran since the Mujahideen-e-Khalq movement remains based in Camp Ashraf in Iraq and Washington refused to surrender the group to Iran or Iraq. Moreover, Tehran demanded assurances that this group will not reorganize its ranks and threaten the Iranian regime. The European Union removed Mujahideen-e-Khalq from the list of terrorist organizations giving its members the opportunity to claim political asylum in Europe so that the US and Europe can keep Mujahideen-e-Khalq as a playing card with which they can bargain with Iran, which has its own playing card in Afghanistan in the form of some Taliban and Al Qaeda members.
In preparation for a new US strategy towards Afghanistan, which will be finalized by April, a high-level meeting is being held this week to discuss the Afghan-Pakistan borders. The US Secretaries of Defense, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton, will take part as well as the US Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke, and Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Pakistan will send its foreign minister, head of military and head of intelligence to attend the meeting and Afghanistan will send its foreign minister.
However, Afghanistan continues to be Russia’s playfield. The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that invitations to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] conference on Afghanistan had been distributed. It is due to take place on March 27 in Moscow. As part of the strategic game between Moscow and Washington, the former succeeded in convincing Kyrgyzstan to shut down the US Manas airbase in the country. Washington is opposed to this conference.
Moreover, Iran is a playing card in the hands of Moscow, and Russia does not want America to have the pleasure of having complete control over Afghanistan because Russia, in return for allowing America to prove that it can achieve its goals in Afghanistan, wants Washington to communicate with it on everything that concerns the republics of the former Soviet Union and the Eastern European states close to it. In other words, it is not enough for Russia that Washington withdrew from setting up an anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Rather, it wants to further strengthen the idea that it has inherited the power and influence of the former Soviet Union over these countries and that it has control over the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran. Also, it wants to hints that it can sell long-range missiles to the Islamic Republic.
What is new however is that China has entered the Afghan sphere, standing by Pakistan and lessening the euphoria that Iran was experiencing as it believed that it will be the alternative that the US requires regarding its borders, its roads and its mercy. The ruling Communist Party of China sent an invite to the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami party headed by Qazi Hussein Ahmed who headed to Beijing on February 7 as the head of a high-level delegation made up of eight members.
China hosted US Secretary of Defense Hillary Clinton recently and welcomed Holbrooke’s mission and called for extending it to include India. China believes that without the cooperation of Pakistan, America will not win the war on terror in South Asia and for there to be stability in Pakistan, the tension between it and India must be alleviated by finding a solution to the Kashmir issue. India rejects any intervention from a third party but China fears that India will utilize the Tibet issue as the 50th anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution of Tibet approaches.
The Chinese invite to the head of the Jamaat-e-Islami is an attempt to strengthen its ties with new players in the region, especially after the development that has taken place in the Swat Valley between the Pakistani government and its Taliban.
Ideologically speaking, Jamaat-e-Islami is part of the international Islamic movement and has good ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Its relationship with the Chinese is nothing new as at the end of the 1980s, at the order of Pakistani intelligence, Qazi Hussein Ahmed visited China to convince Muslim separatists there to end the rebellion.
In Afghanistan, Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami has deep-rooted ties with Hizb-e-Islami headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and has ideological ties with Jamiat-e-Islami headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani and the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan headed by Abdul Rabi Rasul Sayyaf.
China’s stance on Jamaat-e-Islami does not contradict its stance on the Taliban in Afghanistan; it sees no problem in the Taliban participating in the government as part of a political settlement, just as in its meeting with Hillary Clinton, Beijing urged Washington to be more flexible with the current circumstances in Afghanistan. Also, because Afghanistan is lacking the modernity required for a state, China has come to believe that Afghanistan cannot be a unified state. Many other decision-making circles in the US and Britain agree that the new direction that should be taken in Afghanistan that may bring about a solution is to reduce the centralization of authority by allowing the Taliban to have some responsibility in running all Pashtun regions. This can also be applied to Hazara and Tajik areas.
The Chinese will take part in the SCO conference to be held in Moscow, and Iran and India will also take part as observers. It realizes that the fate of US strategy in Afghanistan is not set in stone in its confrontation against rebellion, and at the same time it knows that America’s long-term goal in Afghanistan might be strategic because it is the point where Europe meets Asia. The short-term goal is to eliminate the Al Qaeda organization whilst at the same time it does not want NATO member states to fail in their first military operation outside of Europe.
China has begun to strengthen its position regarding Pakistan-Afghanistan and will observe the Russian-US conflict in the region. It wants to curtail India’s support for Tibet by ensuring that there is more stability in Pakistan than in Afghanistan.
The Afghan field is packed with key players: America, Russia, and China. Pakistan will remain the fundamental passageway to Afghanistan. As for Iran, its role in Afghanistan has been marginalized by the ongoing bargaining between Moscow and Washington. We will know its direction when the foreign ministers of the two countries meet on March 6.