Lingering acrimony in Afghan-Pakistani relations could create a diplomatic opening for Iran to increase its economic and political influence in Kabul.
Afghan-Pakistani tension is rooted in the revived Taliban insurgency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Despite repeated denials by Islamabad, the prevailing sentiment in Kabul is that Pakistan is providing critical assistance to the Taliban. Afghan media now openly depict Islamabad as striving to undermine President Hamid Karzai's administration. Afghan officials evidently believe that Pakistan seeks to recover political leverage in Afghanistan that it lost after the Taliban regime was driven from Kabul in 2001.
The rhetoric became heated toward the end of 2006. On December 6, a commentary published by the Afghan newspaper Taraqi asserted the "Taliban are fully supported by the ISI [Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence] and the religious parties of Pakistan, and leaders such as Qazi Hussain Ahmad [the leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, a hard-line, anti-Western party with its base in the volatile border regions of the North-West Frontier Province] and Mawlana Fazel Rahman [the leader of Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, another ultra-conservative Islamist party in NWFP]."
Karzai on December 12 unequivocally blamed the Pakistani government for fueling the ongoing Taliban insurgency. According to Afghan media reports, Karzai stated that "if the world community does not realize the extent of Pakistan's interference in Afghanistan, and does not find a solution to the current Pakistani military intervention in Afghanistan, the flames of the fire will spread to the region and the world." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On December 16, the Afghan weekly Eqtedar-e Melli urged the government to transform its anti-Pakistan rhetoric into an official policy. An editorial suggested that Pakistan has only been "emboldened and has found the hope of succeeding in their policies in Afghanistan" due to Karzai's emotional speech on December 12. Meanwhile, the daily Cheragh greeted the speech as a "policy change on the part of the Afghan government," while Arman-e Melli asked Karzai to show fortitude and "fight the most evil and treacherous militarists ruling the neighboring country."
Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri hit back on December 20, suggesting that Karzai's administration was attempting to shift attention away from its own shortcomings. Kasuri stressed that the maintenance of order in Afghanistan was the "responsibility of the Afghan Army and NATO forces." In an interview on the al-Arabiya News Channel, Kasuri called for an end to "verbal vitriol" from Afghanistan and urged "greater cooperation, coordination and intelligence sharing," as well as the termination of illegal cross-border movement. He also alleged that Kabul was trying to turn Islamabad into "a convenient scapegoat."
"It takes the attention away from the poppy production in Afghanistan, from corruption in Afghanistan, from warlordism in Afghanistan," Kasuri said.
Kasuri blamed the lack of progress in the implementation of better border monitoring schemes on Afghanistan's unwillingness to establish border posts. Afghan opposition is rooted in fear that such action would legitimize the Durand Line, the contrived 2,600-km border set up by the British in 1893 that divides mainly Pashtun-populated lands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and which remains widely disputed by Pashtuns in Afghanistan.
In a sign that Pakistan is sincere in its desire to lower tension, the Pakistani army has started to erect a border fence in selected areas along the country's frontier with Afghanistan, the Foreign Ministry announced on January 3. Pakistani officials have also pledged to sow landmines in some border areas. The action would be aimed at hampering the ability of Taliban militants to carry out raids into Afghanistan from bases in Pakistan.
While authorities in Kabul were still fuming over Kasuri's alleged calls for the Karzai administration to share power with the Taliban, Afghanistan's First Vice President, Ahmad Zia, paid a visit to Iran from December 16-18. Zia met President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Vice President Ali Saeedlou and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. [Kasuri has denied making the comments on power-sharing].
Ahmadinejad reportedly told Zia that Iran was prepared to "transfer its experience and valuable achievements in different fields, such as supplying energy in order to rebuild Afghanistan." Saeedlou emphasised Tehran's particular interest in projects to develop Afghanistan's economic infrastructure. Meanwhile, Zia took a clear swipe at Pakistan, saying the "roots of instability and insecurity in Afghanistan are the conspiracies of foreign powers."
Both Tehran and Islamabad look on Afghanistan in highly geo-strategic terms, with both sides certain that strong footing in Kabul is essential to protecting their respective regional interests. Radio Mashhad, a regional outlet of the Islamic Republic News Agency that broadcasts in Tajik, Dari and Pashtun to Afghanistan, has in recent weeks frequently carried interviews with Afghan observers who point the finger at Pakistan as the main source of instability in Afghanistan. This is a reaction to allegations made by Hamid Gul, the former head of the ISI, that Tehran is aiding anti-Karzai and anti-NATO forces in the provinces of Farah and Nimroz. Tehran, which has rejected the allegations, is officially advocating the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan in return for a security arrangement under UN auspices. Islamabad, meanwhile, is content with present NATO-led setup.
The Iranian overture toward Kabul, and Tehran's flexing its political muscle on the regional stage, is not being overlooked by Islamabad. But it remains to be seen whether Iranian-Pakistani rivalry will take on a conspicuously antagonistic shape in 2007. From the departure of Soviet troops in 1989 through the demise of the Taliban in 2001, the Iranian-Pakistani turf war in Afghanistan facilitated the prolongation of civil strife among various Afghan ethnic groups and factions. The renewal of a heated Iranian-Pakistani rivalry would likely exacerbate the already highly unstable socio-political situation in Afghanistan.
Tehran and Islamabad now have a strong economic incentive to restrain their jockeying over Afghanistan. On December 19, Kasuri, the Pakistani foreign minister, visited Iran for talks that focused primarily on plans to build a natural gas pipeline, known as Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI). If not managed properly, the Iranian-Pakistani rivalry over Afghanistan could hamper implementation of IPI.
The English-language Pakistani newspaper Dawn quoted Ahmadinejad as saying the "construction of a natural gas pipeline from Iran through Pakistan to India would not only lead to strengthening friendly ties among our three countries, but also decrease tensions in the entire region."
Alex Vatanka is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in Iranian affairs.