Edition 31 Volume 5 - August 09, 2024

Afghanistan and the Middle East

Kabul comes to Madison Avenue -   Mark Perry

Why is it that Afghanistan is beginning to look a lot like Lebanon and Palestine, where national leaders are losing the support of their own people?

Afghanistan's lessons for Palestine -   Waleed Sadi

Ever since the defeat of the Soviet Union, the Palestinian case has taken a turn for the unknown.

An endless war -   Jasjit Singh

We may be on the threshold of the further spread of religious extremism and terrorism emanating from Pakistan-Afghanistan.

A pawn in Iran's nuclear ambitions? -   Amin Tarzi

Iran's actions in Afghanistan give Tehran an advantage in its efforts to safeguard the regime and its aspirations.

Kabul comes to Madison Avenue
 Mark Perry

It is August in America and so baseball, that greatest of all American games, has once again become the national obsession. Are hundreds dying in Iraq? Is Pakistan in chaos? Too bad: there's a home run record to be broken and a pennant race to be won. Still, the game has its uses, including the provision of tiresome political metaphors. George Herman "Babe" Ruth (for instance) was the greatest of all baseball players, but you would not have guessed it: he was overweight, out-of-shape and tipped forward when he ran. He regularly came to a game hung over, or worse, and no one would have confused him with a jogger. But he defined the game, was the "sultan of swat" and now every home run is either "Ruthian" or (more likely) not. How odd: Babe Ruth didn't look like a baseball player.

Hamid Karzai, on the other hand, is the anti-Ruth: he's our kind of Muslim. That is to say: he looks like a national leader and he's a knock-out in that funky Afghan coat. When Karzai became Afghanistan's leader in 2024 and presented himself at the UN, America was all agog at his sporting image: "People are watching Hamid Karzai," a prominent CNN news report said at the time. "He's the interim leader of a headline-grabbing nation and he looks good, at least that's the word on the street. Regal, chisel-cheeked and bronzed, Karzai captures gazes donned in his distinctive dress. The furry hats and five-foot-long sleeves led one fashion aficionado to label his look 'Karzai chic'." Tom Ford, the Gucci label's public relations whiz, called him "very elegant and very proud", while a Washington commentator said that it helped that he looked like Ben Kingsley, Hollywood's choice for the lead role in "Gandhi".

Of course, the question is not how Karzai looks in his Nehru coat, but whether he can "hit the long ball". In Karzai's case, that judgment seemed to come early. Just months after his first high-profile stroll down Madison Avenue, Council on Foreign Relations analysts Arthur Helton and Jennifer Whitaker were writing that "with his phalanx of American guards", Karzai looked a lot less like Ben Kingsley and a lot more like "the warlord of Kabul". One year later, American foreign policy analysts were already assessing his possible failure--the more he visited Washington, the easier it was for the Taliban "to make him look like just another western puppet". Now, with his latest visit to Washington, we've decided Karzai is everything we don't want him to be--a virtual prisoner of Kabul who is presiding over a failed nation--a model for those in the region viewed as American puppets: there's a "Lebanese Karzai" and a "Palestinian Karzai" and if Nouri al-Maliki weren't "an agent of Iran" (as noted television commentator Wolf Blitzer recently said) he'd probably be branded "an Iraqi Karzai".

To suppose that Americans care only about image, or really believe that perception is reality (after all, we glorified the lumpy Ruth having watched him swing the bat), is something of an exaggeration. But there is some truth in the claim: we caricature our enemies until they become our friends. The examples are legion: Yasser Arafat was "a man of peace" during the Clinton years, but "a serial liar" during the Bush years; Madeleine Albright once laughingly described her disgust at being kissed by him (though she had no trouble with his peck so long as he shook Yitzhak Rabin's hand). So too now, the once "chisel-cheeked and bronzed" Hamid Karzai is described as "haggard" and "showing his age". The mistake here is not simply that we caricature our enemies, but that we misperceive our own influence. The weakness we see in Karzai is the result of our inability to understand that legitimacy cannot be conferred, but must be earned.

So it is that Hamid Karzai's most recent visit to Washington was occasion for some unusual soul-searching among political commentators and foreign policy analysts. How is it that "this good man" has failed to gain the support of his people, while his enemies seem suddenly everywhere present? Why is it that Afghanistan is beginning to look a lot like Lebanon and Palestine, where national leaders, strongly supported by the United States, are losing the support of their own people? The sobering truth, as we in America (and in the West) are now beginning to understand, is that the two are not unrelated and that therefore it's time for us to face a simple if uncomfortable fact: that the people of Afghanistan (and so too people throughout the region) do not look on Islamist movements as representing fringe political currents bent on plunging their societies into a new dark age, or the leaders of these movements as religious fanatics who must be confronted at all costs. Nor do they look on us (we heavily armed Americans and our coalition of willing allies) as only temporary and indifferent visitors in their countries, intent on carrying the light of liberty into the dark corners of their world. Rather, we are viewed as an alien and unwanted presence, while those who support us are condemned as collaborators, as "Karzai's".- Published 9/8/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Mark Perry is the author of "Partners in Command, George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace". His most recent book is "Talking To Terrorists" (Basic Books, 2024).

Afghanistan's lessons for Palestine
 Waleed Sadi

The search for a solution to the Palestinian question has been complicated by regional Arab rivalries ever since the genesis of the crisis during the British mandate over the country. This inter-Arab complication took a new turn when British rule was about to end in 1948 and the United Nations stepped in and adopted a series of non-binding UN General Assembly resolutions calling inter alia for the partition of the country into two states, one Arab and the other Jewish.

Since then, the major international powers, especially those occupying permanent seats at the UN Security Council, competed with each other through the United Nations to exert influence on the issue to further their own economic and geopolitical interests in the Middle East. This regional and international order of affairs for the Palestinian problem stayed almost static until the Cold War ended in 1990 and the communist order in the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries in East Europe suddenly collapsed.

The end of the former Soviet empire coincided of course with the forced withdrawal of the Soviet army from Afghanistan where it was dealt a devastating military defeat at the hands of relatively few Afghani insurgents supported by Arab and Muslim fighters from the Middle East and beyond. We all know by now that the defeat of the Soviet army at the hands of Afghani Islamists was made possible by both direct US military assistance and Saudi financial, political and military support. It was in Afghanistan that Osama Bin Laden founded his now infamous al-Qaeda organization ostensibly to drive out the communists from Afghanistan and weaken the Soviet empire by literally bleeding it to death on Afghan soil. Indeed, Washington marveled at the idea of having the mighty Soviet Union mauled by a "primitive militant" force.

Ever since that defeat of the Soviet Union both in Afghanistan and by dint of US military spending, the Palestinian case has taken a turn for the unknown. The change for the Palestinians was due in part at least to the added complications stemming from the injection of additional players into the Palestinian theatre and other regional fronts in the Middle East.

Al-Qaeda has been busy extending its clout and presence throughout the Middle East, including on the Palestinian scene, ever since its triumph in Afghanistan. Striking the deathblow to the Soviet army in Afghanistan was a huge victory for Bin Laden and his supporters and not just in military terms. It gave al-Qaeda the strength and conviction that the same tactic could be applied to the US and Israel. It is indeed, as has often been noted, ironic that Bin Laden's victory over Moscow was aided and abetted by Washington. Supporters of Bin Laden's stream of Islamism and the US army now face each other in Iraq in a much more even fight than it should be on paper.

Although there is no direct link between al-Qaeda and Hamas, there is little doubt that the hardline stance of al-Qaeda with regard to Israel and its principal ally Washington has succeeded in fueling similar postures within the Palestinian ranks. The Palestinians have over the past decades become gradually more self-confident, resilient and assertive when it comes to their national rights and aspirations and this is partly due to the successes achieved by small militant Islamic forces around the world. Palestinians have crossed the threshold of fear that had paralyzed them into submission throughout the three decades before and after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

This increased Palestinian self-confidence in their ability to force Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories coincided with the rise of Islamic "power" in Afghanistan and its spread to other countries in the region. No doubt the Palestinians drew comfort from the ability of hitherto unknown militant Islamist factions to become a "power" that many countries including the world's remaining superpower now fear. This growing article of faith in the ability of small militant Islamist groups to wage wars against mighty nations and win, as indeed had happened in Afghanistan and is happening in Iraq, has instilled a conviction among Palestinians that they too can become a "force" to be reckoned with and therefore succeed in extracting from Israel major territorial concessions sooner rather than later. No wonder Hamas in particular seeks to drive a hard bargain with Israel and covets the liberation of the entire territory of former Palestine.

Hamas and its supporters believe that history is on their side and that as long as they stand steadfast they will surely recreate a new Palestine on all the territory of former Palestine. What we are witnessing therefore is a dramatic metamorphosis in the national Palestinian psyche triggered by a cycle of events and developments that started right in the heartland of Afghanistan..- Published 9/8/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Waleed Sadi is a former Jordanian ambassador to Turkey and the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He is currently a columnist for the Jordan Times and Al Rai newspapers.

An endless war
 Jasjit Singh

In a few weeks, the war in Afghanistan by one count will be six years old. By another, it has been going on for more than three decades. This war has made Afghanistan (especially its south-eastern region, along with western Pakistan) the epicenter of global Islamist-jihadi terrorism.

The war during the 1980s, directed, funded and waged for geopolitical reasons through irregular fighters often proudly praised as "Mujahideen", led to three significant influences: the propagation of irregular sub-conventional war through terrorism in the name of religion, a phenomenal spread and diffusion of military-specification sophisticated weapons to the jihadi groups, and important perceptions of the outcome of that war.

All these are dominant templates in the current war in Afghanistan, though at an enormously expanded scale that undermines security and stability in the Middle East and beyond. Perhaps the most difficult to deal with, with ramifications for the impact on the ongoing war in Afghanistan (and Iraq), are the perceptions of victory and defeat. The Soviet Union pulled out after a decade in a fairly organized manner, leaving behind a well-entrenched Afghan regime with a capable military force that successfully defended its outposts for years. But across the world, especially among Muslim populations, the perception rapidly grew that the jihad waged by Afghan Mujahideen had "defeated" a superpower and its surrogate regime in Afghanistan.

Radical jihadi terrorism erupted from the Balkans through Kashmir to the Philippines. An even more radical Taliban was created to unseat the Mujahideen regime in Kabul. The 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center in New York and other acts of Islamist terrorism were but some of the tragic consequences. Religious terrorism itself became an instrument of policy for many, promoted and propagated by an increasingly fundamentalist army in Pakistan that invoked holy scripture to legitimize terrorism after including "jihad" in its motto.

Unfortunately, despite its enormous military acumen and capability NATO has not, even after six years, succeeded in ensuring peace and security in Afghanistan. If anything, the Taliban show deeply disturbing signs of resurgence; Waziristan in West Pakistan appears to be slipping out of Islamabad's control (which was tenuous at the best of times). The political goals and military objectives of the global war against terrorism, whether achievable or not, appear to be increasingly irrelevant. The failure of NATO to achieve a recognizable "victory" over radical terrorist forces will have far reaching consequences for the region from the Mediterranean in the west to the South China Sea in the east, especially when this happens to coincide with the inability of the sole superpower, even after four years, to win the peace in Iraq.

There are already signs of a replay of the post-Soviet development of Islamic militancy and jihad now that it is clear that NATO (and the US) are unlikely to win the war on terrorism. Hizballah's semi-conventional war last year raining thousands of short-range rockets on the Israeli population is a recent example--in spite of the brilliant performance of the Israel Air Force.

Meanwhile, America's withdrawal of the bulk of its military forces from an Iraq on fire can only add to the two-decade old belief that Islamic militancy and jihad can defeat even a superpower. Pakistan, which has been playing a major role in the war in Afghanistan, contributing to its radicalization and militancy, is itself facing a defining point in its turbulent history. A weakened army regime, the forthcoming elections and a patchwork democracy that leaves the army (and its intelligence agencies) free to wield influence though not accountable for the further growth of terrorism will provide more space for expansion of Taliban and jihadi influence in Pakistan in the coming years.

We need a stable and non-radical Afghanistan if growth of global terrorism is to be reversed. This requires careful crafting and sustained policies to encourage moderate, albeit tribal cultures. The time may have come for a fundamental shift in strategy in Afghanistan from trying to defeat al-Qaeda to containing the Taliban and insulating the badlands from the rest of the country. But even this cannot be done without the full participation of Islamabad on one side and the cooperation of Iran on the other. Current trends read against the backdrop of past lessons indicate that both will be more difficult as time goes by. The US-Iran confrontation on nuclear issues has helped the hardliners in Tehran to move toward assertive chauvinism. As for Pakistan, a civil political government with little actual power would find it more difficult to curb religious extremism, as indeed was the case through the 1990s.

We may be on the threshold of the further spread of religious extremism and terrorism emanating from Pakistan-Afghanistan.- Published 9/8/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Air Commodore (ret.) Jasjit Singh is director of the Centre for Air Power Studies, a New Delhi based independent think tank.

A pawn in Iran's nuclear ambitions?
 Amin Tarzi

The guardians of the Islamic republican system in Iran are continuing their longstanding quest to ensure the existence of Iran's clerical regime. To eliminate potential existential threats, these guardians have gradually entered yet another arena in which to confront their adversaries: Afghanistan. While Iran has played a positive role in increasing Afghanistan's economic and political development, its underhanded and multidimensional meddling in Afghanistan's internal affairs is increasing. A brief look at key recent events provides insight into the motivations behind the Islamic Republic's current support, as well as the unspoken threat of further support, for the myriad insurgent groups--the neo-Taliban--opposing the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.

The appearance of traceable sophisticated weapons and Iranian-produced assault rifles, mortars and plastic explosives in Afghanistan provides evidence of Iran's direct support to the neo-Taliban. Until recently, the explosively-formed penetrators (EFPs) had primarily been seen in Iraq. These weapons, capable of piercing armor, are now being used against NATO forces in Afghanistan, compliments of Iran. If Iran did not want its involvement known it could have supplied untraceable weapons. The introduction of marked weapons into the Afghan theater was purposeful, sending a message of Iran's ability to destabilize western Afghanistan.

Reports of territorial violations also began surfacing earlier this year. Afghan officials accuse their western neighbor of repeatedly violating Afghan airspace as well as of conducting armed incursions into Afghan territory. Furthermore, a former Afghan provincial governor alleges that the Islamic Republic has been hosting a training camp, identified as Shamsabad, for opponents of the Afghan government. These infringements on Afghan sovereignty challenge the efficacy of the central authority in Kabul and its international backers.

These two examples provide insight into the hold Iran has over Afghanistan and why it has sought this position of influence. While most consider Pakistan to be Afghanistan's most troublesome neighbor, one would be remiss if Iran did not enter into the equation. Amid persistent claims of Pakistan's fingerprints all over the neo-Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai could hardly afford another blow to his central authority. Yet Iran, the "exemplary" neighbor, removed any subtlety in its message to both the Karzai administration and the international community by revealing its hand in arms shipments and territorial violations. Although Iran has publicly denied all allegations and lamented the "unfortunate" resurgence of the Taliban, it knows the value of its actions.

One must remember that Iran's hold on Afghanistan is much stronger than Pakistan's. Iran has infiltrated much of the current power structure. In the 1980s, Iran cultivated strong political and military alliances with several fronts inside Afghanistan as well as with Afghan resistance groups based in Iran and Pakistan. Some of Iran's key Afghan assets hold principal posts in Karzai's administration, Afghanistan's parliament and the intelligence community. Because of this, Iran is capable of exerting pressure when it suits its needs.

The expulsion of approximately 100,000 Afghan refugees from Iran is an example of Iran's ability to apply political pressure. Iran claimed that it had the legal right to expel what it considered illegal refugees. This triggered a humanitarian nightmare for Afghanistan and prompted the parliament to sack two of Karzai's loyal cabinet ministers. After Karzai requested leniency, the Iranian authorities agreed to slow down repatriation efforts.

The refugee expulsion gave Iran three advantages. First, Tehran was able to demonstrate to Kabul that it can wreak havoc within reasonably legal grounds if it so desires; second, Iran was able to portray the refugee crisis as reflecting the inadequacy of western-sponsored democracy in Afghanistan. And third and perhaps most dangerous in tactical calculations, Iran may have slipped any number of its own agents into the throngs of returning refugees. These refugees lacked identity papers because, as some Afghan refugees have claimed, the Iranian authorities ripped up their documents even though some had identity cards that allowed them to stay in Iran legally. The sea of refugees without identity cards constituted the perfect cover for Iranian agents to penetrate into Afghanistan.

Iran's actions in Afghanistan appear to be part of a calculated plan to give Tehran an advantage in its efforts to safeguard the regime and its aspirations. As international pressure has mounted against the regime's nuclear ambitions, Iran has ramped up its campaign in Afghanistan, selecting a strange bedfellow--the staunchly Sunni neo-Taliban. Yet Shi'ite Iran has frequently established political alliances based on expediency. Consider its relationships with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Mas'ud. These have proved useful in Iran's efforts to control its environment.

The airspace violations, dispatch of traceable light weapons and EPFs to the neo-Taliban and possible presence of covert agents inside Afghanistan are further reminders to NATO and other international forces stationed in Afghanistan of Iran's ability to create instability. If Iran's nuclear facilities are attacked or if the country is brought under severe economic and political pressure because of its nuclear activities or other misdeeds, Iran can and will make life difficult for the foreign forces in Afghanistan.

In Iran's calculation, the current regime's security rests in having a nuclear capability. Until that time, Tehran has created pressure points to dissuade western powers, especially the United States, and other perceived enemies from challenging the authority of the regime. Iran is using Afghanistan to showcase its might and its ability to create a scenario worse than Iraq for the US and others. If we are not careful, Afghanistan may once again find itself the pawn in a "great game".- Published 9/8/2007 bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Amin Tarzi is director of Middle East Studies, Marine Corps University. The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of either the Marine Corps University or any other US governmental agency. References to this paper should include the foregoing statement.

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