Originally posted December 2009
Afghanistan lies at the crossroads of West, South, and Central Asia. Throughout history, she has both gained and suffered because of her strategic location. Civilizations, religions, great conquerors, and philosophies have crossed over Afghanistan every which way. During the colonial era, Afghanistan was considered the key to the Indian subcontinent. For this reason, regional and major world powers have long sought to control, neutralize rival plans, or assert their own influence over the country. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 triggered a 30-year period of intense geopolitical rivalry in which Pakistan and Iran, far from being idle onlookers, have promoted their own interests and agendas.
During most of Afghanistan’s decade-long fight against Soviet occupation, Pakistan was ruled by General Zia ul-Haq, who sought to use the Afghan crisis for his own political purposes in Pakistan. He decided to support the seven Afghan mujahidin groups. He welcomed more than five million Afghan refugees, whose presence he then used to attract humanitarian assistance from the world at large. This assistance was delivered to the government of Pakistan, and Pakistani officials were in charge of its distribution. A considerable amount of the aid benefited Pakistanis rather than the needy Afghans. The Pakistani government also was at the receiving end of the military support to the mujahidin, especially through Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The long years of the Afghan Jihad served as a period during which General Zia ul-Haq renewed most of his military equipment from the supplies intended for Afghan freedom fighters.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Intelligence Services, the ISI, gained in power and status, so much so that it was entrusted with making decisions regarding the Afghan mujahidin’s war tactics as well as which leader to support and how. The ISI made no attempt to unify the Afghan mujahidin groups. It also was given freedom to plan for a Pakistan-friendly government in Kabul (i.e., a government subordinated to Islamabad).
General Zia ul-Haq also hoped that Afghan friendship would serve to support Pakistan in its conflict with India. He calculated that the implantation of an extremist Islamic regime in Kabul would result in Afghanistan being more tightly bound to Pakistan. Zia planned to capitalize on this relationship to obtain more financial help from the rich Arab states of the Gulf. To do this, however, he had to show the Islamic countries that as the head of one of the relatively advanced Islamic nations, Pakistan was strictly applying Islamic principles in its jurisprudence. He helped push the legal system in Pakistan towards Islamic Shari‘a and authored laws that according to his followers were truly Islamic. Naturally, this had deep effects on the social life of the masses in Afghanistan as well. Pakistani Islamist madrasas thrived, enlisting not only Pakistanis, but mostly young Afghan boys from refugee camps in Pakistan. This group later formed under the auspices of the ISI and under the eyes of its American advisors, the movement that is known as Taliban, or seekers of Islamic knowledge.
The sudden and dramatic death of Zia in a plane crash left a vacuum that was not successfully filled by the civilian government that followed him. The military and especially its ISI wing fell into the hands of another general, General Pervez Musharraf. He followed the same pattern of staging a coup, holding power as the supreme commander of the military and later staging a so-called election through which he became the President of Pakistan. In all of this, Musharraf enjoyed the loyalty of the ISI and therefore assigned due importance to it. By this time the ISI had become a very powerful organization with profound links to extremist movements in the country which it supported.
Like its predecessors, Musharraf’s government too did not want to see a strong, fully independent government in Afghanistan. To that end, the Pakistani military aligned with extremists, including the Pakistani Taliban in order to export their ideology into Afghanistan. During the first Islamic regime in Afghanistan that replaced the Communist regime of Najib, Pakistani military and civilian officials were assigned within the government to imitate the Pakistani system of administration. Later, after the toppling of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Pakistani intervention paved the way for extremists to cross the border into Afghanistan, commit acts of violence there, and return to the safe haven of the tribal belt. This continued despite the Pakistani government’s claim to be an equal partner in the fight against terror in Afghanistan. Diplomatic efforts by the United States did little to rectify the situation.
The post-Musharraf civilian government of Pakistan has pledged to cooperate to counter extremism. However, the seed of terror and extremism that Pakistan had sown in Afghanistan has taken root in its own land. The powerful Pakistani military has found itself struggling to fight extremism effectively in Pakistan itself. On the other hand, Pakistan is still the key to security in Afghanistan and the region. She must prove to the world at large that she is a viable country, although she was put together hurriedly by bringing many differing nations of Pashtuns, Baluchis, Sindhis, and Punjabis together in an artificial country.
Iran’s recent, turbulent past has witnessed extremism as well. In 1979, the secular monarchy was toppled by an extremist clergy. In the name of Islam and democracy, a regime developed in Iran that seems to serve neither cause effectively. Sitting on great oil wealth and claiming an ancient culture and history, Iran sees itself poised to export its anti-secular type of governance throughout the region.
Iran has a broad set of interests in Afghanistan. Economic and especially cultural domination of the region have been the long-standing dreams of Iranian regimes. It is more so now than ever. Opening a natural gas market to the subcontinent has been a strong incentive. Supporting the Shi‘ites of Afghanistan is another. Iran also has a long-standing interest in the waters of the River Helmand that flows in the southwest of Afghanistan, draining in the border region in Siestan basin.
An Afghanistan deeply in trouble and at war constituted a great invitation for Iranian intervention. During the very hard days of the fight for freedom from Soviet occupation and later during the mujahidin regime, Iran maintained its presence in the country, so much so that even when a hot war was going on in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, high-ranking Iranian foreign ministry officials would travel clandestinely to Afghanistan for talks with minority groups. Iran, at times, openly sided with Afghan leaders of the Northern Alliance and Wahdat Party factions. For a number of years, Iran provided refuge for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a controversial jihadi leader of the Islamic party. The Iranian regime thus sought “natural allies” among the minority groups of Afghanistan.
Making political gains in Afghanistan’s muddy waters seemed easy and profitable, so Iran seized the opportunity to try to influence the Afghan leadership friendly to it. Supporting extremist tendencies in neighboring Afghanistan would give credence to Iran’s own strict Islamic rules.
Yet Iran did not play its other card, namely the refugees from Afghanistan, well. While Pakistan, for its own benefit, tried to influence the refugees by providing them breathing space, Iran restricted all Afghan refugees, including those who sought helping hands from fellow Shi‘ites. And unlike Pakistan, Iran did not receive extensive foreign economic aid to help support the almost two million Afghan refugees on its soil. Nor did Iran receive any military help to funnel to Afghan mujahidin.
But perhaps, one of the most important issues that affect Iran is the illegal trafficking of drugs that find their way to Iran both from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The problem of drug addiction has deeply affected Iran in the past almost half a century, and with the unrest in Afghanistan and access to arms by the smugglers, the problem has dramatically increased. Iran cannot ignore this profound threat and thus is interested deeply in a solution to the poppy production in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, with a population of about 30 million, is a relatively small country affecting the interests of many countries in a big way. Involvement by Pakistan and Iran in the affairs of Afghanistan has done little to benefit the people of Afghanistan and has backfired on them. Presently, there is a great need for a plan to regulate all foreign activities in Afghanistan in a meaningful and coordinated manner that contributes to stability in the country and the surrounding region.