This Opinion first appeared in Frontline.com's Tehran Bureau on June 13, 2012 and was co-authored by Christina Lin
As U.S. and other NATO troops prepare to leave Afghanistan in 2014, a geopolitical realignment will be under way in Southwest Asia. One possible scenario would outright undermine a principle U.S. policy objective in the region: the containment of Iran.
The United States may soon have to tackle the dilemma of prioritizing Afghanistan's long-term viability as a nation-state over the long-standing American policy of excluding Tehran from regional projects and economic integration. The pressure on Washington is exacerbated by the fact that Beijing and Moscow may increasingly undercut America's stance on Iran by turning Tehran into an inevitable outlet for Afghan trade and interaction with the outside world.
Developments in Beijing
Most notably, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- dubbed the NATO of the East -- has recently been holding itself out as an alternative mechanism to fill the vacuum once Western troops depart from Afghanistan. At the June 6-7 SCO summit in Beijing, China successfully drew Afghanistan further into its orbit. Kabul was granted observer status and Turkey was accepted as a dialogue partner in the Eurasian collective security body. Russia and China are the undisputed leaders in the six-state SCO and Iran has been an observer state since 2005. Last week in China, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeatedly urged his cohorts at SCO to turn the organization against the West.
Despite the pomp in Beijing, there is still some good distance between SCO's rhetoric and what the organization has actually accomplished since its inception in 2001. But the fact that SCO is both expanding and strengthening its mandate is undeniable. So far the SCO has been focused mainly on security coordination among member states, combating the so-called "three evils" of terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism.
At this latest summit, the big headline was the pledge by SCO leaders to push ahead with economic coordination among member states. Chinese President Hu promised US$10 billion to support economic cooperation within the SCO zone, including infrastructure development. Hu said the SCO should become the "driving force to boost regional economic development." If such pledges begin to be implemented, policymakers in Washington will be forced to reassess their goals in Afghanistan and the policy objective of excluding Tehran at any cost. At the same time, the Afghan authorities are also clearly contemplating the country's long-term needs, and whether they will heed U.S. pressures remains unknown.
On June 14, Afghanistan will host the Kabul conference for regional cooperation, inviting neighboring countries from Central Asia as well as China and Iran that were not invited to attend the NATO Chicago summit in May. This will be followed by the Tokyo Conference in July for donor countries to pledge their commitments to Afghanistan beyond 2014. The Afghans therefore have to increasingly juggle between tangible but finite U.S. military and financial assistance and the promise of economic incentives and lasting regional integration in the framework of the SCO.
Whose Silk Road?
Central to the American goal of shifting Afghanistan from a decade of "transition" to a decade of "transformation" between 2014 and 2024 is the U.S.-led New Silk Road Initiative.
This is a vision of a north-south corridor tying Afghanistan with Central Asia and South Asia, based on the Northern Distribution Network, while attempting to isolate Iran. At the same time, despite U.S. opposition, China and Iran have been marching ahead with their own version of an east-west Silk Road aimed at regional integration.
In the long run, it is unrealistic for the United States to isolate Iran while attempting to integrate Afghanistan regionally. Afghanistan is sandwiched between two large neighbors -- China to the east via the Wakhan Corridor and Iran to the west. By virtue of its geography, Iran will be a transport hub of any Silk Road that involves Afghanistan, whether north-south or east-west.
Indeed, China, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey have already been proceeding with transport links for regional integration under the auspices of the SCO and Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). ECO was founded by Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan in 1985 and expanded to include the five Central Asian republics, Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan in 1992. Because many members of ECO are also members and observers of SCO, it is no surprise that Afghanistan and Turkey officially joined SCO in the recent summit.
In fact, the vision of building an Islamic corridor from China's Xinjiang province through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey onto Europe is already under way, with the successful 2009 launch of ECO trains from Istanbul-Tehran-Islamabad and the current proposal for a new corridor linking China to Iran via Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan. In so doing, China will be able to escape the vulnerabilities of sea-based trading routes and have direct land access to Iran to bypass any Western sanctions.
From one perspective, these existing efforts and realities on the ground are good news for a United States that wants to see Afghanistan stand on its own and become an integral part of the economies of Southwest Asia. The short-term challenge for the United States is how to tackle the Iran factor in Afghanistan's integration efforts. Despite American-Iranian hostilities and rivalries, few can deny that Tehran's exclusion from regional projects in this part of the world is at best untenable and at worst contrary to the very same Afghan interests that Washington has for a decade sought to enhance.
Nevertheless, given American opposition to Iranian policies on a host of issues, the choice is not an easy one for Washington.