Iran Muddies Afghanistan’s Waters

KARACHI – With the ground situation in Afghanistan expected to deteriorate even further in the coming weeks, Pakistan will once again serve as a back yard for US military and diplomatic initiatives to contain the spreading guerrilla warfare.

At the same time, Iran, which is steadily being pushed against the wall by the United States, still has a few cards left to play in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq, in an attempt to tie down harassed US forces further in those countries and divert attention from itself.

Very much as in Iraq, there are clear indications that with the help of more than a dozen important Hezb-i-Islami leaders based in Tehran, Iran has established a supply line for the resistance movement in Afghanistan to consolidate in areas where it has yet to establish itself fully. The Hezb-i-Islami, led by famed Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is the most organized resistance force in Afghanistan. Hekmatyar recently returned to Afghanistan after several years of exile in Iran.

Sources close to the resistance say that US and allied forces in Afghanistan now face a two-fold danger. First, an ever-better-organized, -equipped and -trained resistance movement will intensify its guerrilla attacks, especially in the rugged mountains and scorching heat of Jalalabad and Kandahar. The ranks are being swelled by Chechen and Uzbek volunteers, and some sources even say that suicide bombers are included in their ranks. Second, the Afghan national army, on which the United States relies to a large extent, and the administration in Kabul are known to include a number of sympathizers of the Hezb-I-Islami who could turn at any time.

In response, the US and allied forces – in coordination with Pakistani troops along the border areas – will conduct massive operations in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Zabal, Farah, Logar, Gazni, Khost, Paktia, Paktika and Kunhar. These are likely to start with aerial bombardments, followed by sweeping military action to isolate guerrilla units.

The decision for these operations follows the breakdown of tentative talks among the United States, Pakistan and the Taliban. A first contact was dismissed out of hand by the Taliban because the go-between was former Taliban leader Mullah Ghous, who had been expelled from the hierarchy when the Taliban were still in power in Kabul. Another round of talks with a more acceptable intermediary was held in Quetta, Pakistan, but they failed to make any headway.

In a significant move, the Pakistani government on Thursday sent three infantry units to the Mohmand area to guard a 60-kilometer stretch of border with Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nangarhar provinces. “The regular army will join the paramilitary forces in the area and take the frontline position on the border,” an official said. A similar deployment is in the cards along the Chaman border in the next few days.

The emerging situation is beginning to resemble that faced by the Soviets in their decade of occupation starting in 1979. Constant harassment and sniping guerrilla tactics drained the resources and the resolve of the Red Army as it was never able to engage the enemy in decisive battles.

This scenario suits Iran, and it will be no coincidence if western Afghanistan, which borders Iran, sees an increase in unrest from its relative calm in comparison with other parts of the country – notably, the Sheen Dand air base could become a target. The Hezb-i-Islami has a strong presence in the west, and it has maintained contact with the legendary Afghan mujahideen commander and current governor of Herat, Ismail Khan. Ismail Khan recently ruled out the deployment of international forces in his province. Instead, the Iranian border areas could serve as a back yard for the resistance movement.

This growing lawlessness and warlordism in Afghanistan is once again giving rise to the very circumstances that led to the Taliban taking power in the country in 1996. If nothing else, the Taliban restored an iron discipline to the country during their rule.

And the re-emergence of the Taliban movement suits some elements in Pakistan, who hanker after the days when Pakistan, through its support of the Taliban, wielded much influence in Afghanistan – for example, the former director general of the Inter-Service Intelligence, Lieutenant-General Mehmood Ahmed. Mehmood was chosen by Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to talk the Taliban into a peaceful solution to the Afghan situation after September 11, 2001, when Pakistan, under US pressure, renounced its support of the Taliban. Instead, though, Mehmood prepared the Taliban to fight the United States. He was removed from his post when the US attacked Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, and placed under house arrest. He has now been released, and serves as managing director of Fauji Fertilizer (a production unit owned by the Pakistani army).

Such hawkish elements in the army and among Pakistan’s militant groups are just waiting to make Afghanistan their playground once again.