For Iran and Pakistan: A Welcome Note
There is little doubt that no other country would like an instant withdrawal of U.S.-NATO forces more than Iran. But with the rapid deterioration of relations between the United States and Pakistan, Islamabad has also shifted to open opposition to the U.S.-NATO presence in Afghanistan. The ingredients of the two countries’ opposition are not the same, but there are areas of similarities.
In recent days, particularly since the growth of Islamic militancy in Pakistan, Washington has begun to exert pressure on Pakistan to give up its nuclear arsenal because, Washington says, it could fall into the hands of the Islamic zealots…
For instance, Iran believes that the United States, on behalf of Israel and its European allies, will attack Iran if it can convince the American population that Tehran is in the process of manufacturing nuclear weapons. But Tehran also knows that the nuclear weapons issue is a mere pretext. The real reason Washington wishes to attack Iran is to undo the Shiite clerical revolution and establish the supremacy of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf nations in the Middle East.
Pakistan, on the other hand, who is an ally of Saudi Arabia, has different worries about the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. To begin with, Washington has become increasingly disapproving of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. During the Cold War, Washington claimed that India and Pakistan would launch a nuclear attack against each other in case of a conflict; such claims were intended to incite the world community to pressure both Pakistan and India to denuclearise.
In recent days, particularly since the growth of Islamic militancy in Pakistan, Washington has begun to exert pressure on Pakistan to give up its nuclear arsenal because, Washington says, it could fall into the hands of the Islamic zealots who are anti-West and, practically, anti-everything. Despite repeated assertions by Islamabad that the country’s nuclear weapons are safe, Washington continues to claim such a catastrophe is a distinct possibility. There are, as well, reports that the United States has trained special forces to grab the Pakistani nuclear arsenal.
Be that as it may, Islamabad has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons and, increasingly, eyes Washington with a great deal of suspicion. For Islamabad, then, withdrawal of U.S.-NATO troops from Afghanistan could provide Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal a definite reprieve.
Talk in Washington about the “unacceptable” conditions of the Baluchis in Pakistan’s southwestern province of Baluchistan and the prospect of its becoming an independent nation has hardened Pakistan’s stance. In Islamabad, a growing worry is that the separation of Baluchistan, beside weakening Pakistan, is an American ploy to secure a strong presence next to its avowed enemy, Iran, and at the same time prevent either China or Russia from gaining transport access to the Arabian Sea. The province is adjoined to southeastern Iran, and its southern end touches the Arabian Sea.
Last December, Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran welcomes the pull-out of foreign forces from Afghanistan and the takeover of the country’s security by Afghan forces. He said the foreign military presence over the past decade has failed to uproot terrorism. He also said cooperation among the Persian-speaking countries of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan would serve the interests of the three nations and the entire region.
Pakistan will watch developments in Afghanistan very carefully in the coming days. Since the situation remains so fluid, it is impossible to predict today what the ground conditions will be at the time that U.S.-NATO troops end their stay.
Earlier, Iran had opposed President Obama’s increased troop deployment. At the time, Iranian interior minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar told an 8 March 2011 press conference in Kabul that “[Iran] is definitely against the deployment, presence of foreign forces and establishment of U.S. permanent bases in Afghanistan, and [believes that] permanent bases would further complicate the conditions in the region and in Afghanistan.”
As its southern neighbour, Iran has a long historical relationship with Afghanistan. It also has leverage inside that country that was built up over the years, particularly since the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. Tehran has consistently backed Shiite Hazara parties and the influential Tajik commander Ismail Khan in Afghanistan’s Herat province. The arrival of the Taliban on Pakistan’s shoulders was a setback for Iran, but Iran continued to stay in close contact with the Hazara and Tajik commanders during the years that followed. Tehran gave thousands of Hazara leaders refuge, training and financial support to fight against the Taliban.
Following the U.S. invasion, although Iran supported the Karzai government, it also provided support to any group within Afghanistan that was willing to fight the U.S.-NATO troops and that sought Tehran’s support. It is expected that Iran will continue to interact with the network it has built over the decades. The departure of U.S. troops will reduce the direct threat to Iran but is not expected to create many new opportunities for Tehran in the short run.
Pakistan’s interest in the U.S.-NATO troop withdrawal is not abstract. Unlike other countries in the region discussed in this article, Pakistan will play a role in the decision-making that will determine who will be in power in Kabul. There is no question that stability in Afghanistan is imperative for Pakistan and that such stability may emerge only after the foreign troops leave. On the other hand, stability, a complex condition in the Afghan context, may take years to emerge.
Pakistan will watch developments in Afghanistan very carefully in the coming days. Since the situation remains so fluid, it is impossible to predict today what the ground conditions will be at the time that U.S.-NATO troops end their stay. One could draw a myriad of scenarios, and each one would have a different implication for Pakistan. According to a Pakistani analyst, Agha Amin, the implications of a U.S. withdrawal could be:
- Collapse within a matter of months of the moderate Afghan regime created with the help of billions of dollars of U.S. and European/G8 aid
- Creation of an unemployed and uncommitted reserve of Islamic extremists, well trained in military arts, that could represent a greater threat to the Pakistani state and to all neighbours of Afghanistan
- A renewed civil war in Afghanistan in which the Taliban will be backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia
Nonetheless, for Pakistan, peace in Afghanistan could usher in some immediate benefits. For instance, there are about three million Afghans living in Pakistan as refugees, many of whom would be repatriated. Many of these refugees are reportedly involved in weapons and narcotics trafficking into Pakistan. With the repatriation of a majority of these Pashtuns, Pakistan’s security could improve noticeably.
…although India is part of the broader region, and surely has a lot of influence within Afghanistan, New Delhi’s ability to influence the outcome is limited.
It is also not altogether unlikely that foreign troop withdrawal may reduce the growth of extremism within Pakistan. There is no question that the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, their insensitive and brutal actions against the inhabitants of the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, and the tacit, and even military, support lent by Islamabad to these foreign troops over the years have led to the death of many innocents and have given a boost to extremism within Pakistan. At the same time, it must be pointed out that while the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan certainly enhanced extremist activities, their departure may not weaken these extremists.
Finally, the specific regional implications of U.S. troop withdrawal will depend on how the actual physical withdrawal takes place; who, or which group, comes to power in Kabul; how long the new incumbent stays in power in Kabul; and who opposes the incumbent and how violent such opposition turns out to be. These are all unknown at this time and might remain virtually unknown even when the foreign troops leave.
The implications will become clearer as answers to these questions emerge: How many bases will the U.S. maintain in Afghanistan and where? How will the worsening relationship between Iran and the Arab world, backed by the West and Israel, affect Afghanistan and the region as a whole?
One may notice that the implications for India have not been discussed. The reason is that although India is part of the broader region, and surely has a lot of influence within Afghanistan, New Delhi’s ability to influence the outcome is limited. One may argue that the same is the case for Russia, for instance. But whereas Russia’s security could be seriously jeopardised if a strong Taliban-like Islamic extremist group takes control following the withdrawal of U.S.-NATO troops from Afghanistan, India faces no such direct security threats.