Tehran renews ties Taliban?
C Raja Mohan
11 May 2012
Angry at the successful conclusion of the strategic partnership agreement (SPA) between Kabul and Washington, Tehran has apparently renewed its contacts with the Taliban that is seeking to overthrow the government in Afghanistan led by President Hamid Karzai.
Like Pakistan, Iran too was betting that Kabul and Washington would not be able to structure the terms for a sustainable long-term partnership between Afghanistan and the United States. Like Rawalpindi, Tehran was also hoping to see a full withdrawal by the American military forces from Afghanistan by 2014.
After US President Barack Obama’s visit to Kabul earlier this month and the signing of the SPA, the Afghan landscape looks a lot different. For one, Obama has signalled the political will to undertake a long-term strategic commitment to the future of Afghanistan.
This would involve mobilising international monetary and military support for Afghanistan’s economic development and national security. On the military side, this involves standing up and funding a strong Afghan National Army.
Iran, like Pakistan, is not enthused by the prospect of a large Afghan national armed force backed by US military might and Western economic largesse. Historically, Kabul never had much of a standing army because Afghanistan never had the resources to pay for one.
Worse still from Tehran’s perspective is the prospect that the US would retain a strong military force in Afghanistan after 2014, when Washington plans to end its combat role there.
The size of this residual US force is yet to be determined. There is speculation that it could range from 20,000 to 40,000 troops. It would involve probably the world’s biggest concentration of US Special Forces in any one theatre. That is a sizeable presence that will aid and assist the Afghan forces to defend Kabul’s sovereignty. The US forces will also join the Afghan troops in actual combat if needed. The US-Afghan SPA is valid for 10 years after 2014. This means there could be a muscular American military presence in Afghanistan up to 2024.
Besides helping Kabul to secure its sovereignty, US forces will also be engaged in counter-terror missions against al-Qaeda and its radical allies that enjoy shelter and patronage in Pakistan’s western borderlands.
The US-Afghan SPA is not welcome in Iran and Tehran is making its displeasure known. A few days ago, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast attacked the pact between Washington and Tehran.
"Not only will the strategic pact not resolve Afghanistan’s security problems, but it will intensify insecurity and instability in Afghanistan," Mehmanparast said. He added that the pact is a source of "concern" for Iran as "the status of US military bases in Afghanistan is unclear and the security duties of US forces lack transparency".
For its part, the government of Hamid Karzai did its best to reassure Iran in negotiating the SPA with Washington. The pact declares that the US will not use Afghan soil to attack Kabul’s neighbours.
The SPA will be followed by a "status of forces" agreement that will give Kabul sovereign control over the disposition of American troops in Afghanistan. Both Kabul and Washington have declared that the US is not seeking permanent military bases in Afghanistan.
This was not enough to satisfy Iran. Iran’s ambassador to Kabul called on the Afghan parliament to reject the SPA with the US. Iran’s aggressive campaign has angered lawmakers in Kabul, who have denounced Tehran’s interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.
As it comes to terms with the deepening bond between Kabul and Washington, Tehran is, not surprisingly, looking at options to increase its leverage in Afghanistan.
Until now, Iran has presented itself as a friend of Kabul. Now Tehran has begun to befriend Kabul’s enemies. But surely the interests of Tehran and the Taliban are incompatible in Afghanistan?
That might well be; but for now Tehran’s priority is to deal with the "Big Satan", the US. If that involves making deals with the Taliban, the "Little Satan", then so be it.
Meanwhile, the mounting tensions between Tehran and Kabul begin to raise an important question for New Delhi. For long, Delhi has assumed that Tehran is a natural ally in strengthening Kabul against the Taliban and its friends. Iran also gives India physical access to Afghanistan that Pakistan refuses to.
This presumed convergence might come under stress, as India deepens its political commitment to Afghanistan and Tehran looks to Kabul’s enemies.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)
Courtesy: The Indian Express, May 10, 2012.