Afghanistan, Iran, and Petraeus' Real Challenge

The Obama Administration's determination to simultaneously inflict "pain" on the Taliban and on Iran to force both parties to negotiating tables on American terms will backfire. It will, in fact, accelerate Afghanistan's descent into renewed civil war--with a regional "proxy" war between Iran, on the one hand, and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, on the other, added on.

Last week, in announcing General Stanley McChrystal's replacement as senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan by General David Petraeus, President Obama assured the American people that "this is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy". As Senate confirmation hearings for Petraeus' new appointment convene this week, that is precisely what should worry the American people, for current policy is setting the stage for a resumption of civil war in Afghanistan--recreating the conditions under which Al-Qa'ida first established a safe-haven there in the 1990s.

As America positions itself to begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan next year, reality is slowly but inexorably forcing the Obama Administration to accommodate Afghan President Hamid Karzai's drive for a political deal with the Taliban and its principal external backers, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. But, in the political and security vacuum that is today's Afghanistan, Karzai's effort is, as The New York Times reported Sunday, generating deep unease among leaders of the country's Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities.

Together, these communities comprise 45 percent of Afghanistan's population--slightly higher than the Pashtuns' 42 percent--and were the base for the so-called Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban in a civil war that raged from 1989 until the U.S. invasion in 2001. Already, the leadership of these non-Pashtun communities--who also dominate the upper echelons of the Afghan military--are organizing to resist, by force, any serious attempt at power-sharing between Karzai's government and the Taliban.

A power-sharing arrangement including the Taliban is the only remotely plausible, stable political outcome in the medium-to-long term. But, if General Petraeus' appointment indeed represents a change in personnel but not in policy, then a replay of Afghanistan's civil war along previously established lines will become increasingly likely, for two reasons.

First, the Obama Administration continues to impose rigid conditions on the inclusion of Taliban elements in a political process--including renunciation of violence and acceptance of Afghanistan's current constitution (including Western-inspired provisions on women's rights). Both the intent behind and the effect of these conditions is to exclude the Taliban's most important leaders and constituencies. This dooms the pursuit of a political settlement to failure.

Second, the Obama Administration asserts it can compel the Taliban's eventual participation in a political process on U.S. terms by imposing higher levels of military pressure (including "collateral damage" to a substantial number of Afghan civilians). But, as U.S. military activity in Afghanistan escalates, the Taliban's standing increases and popular resentment of what is increasingly perceived as a U.S. occupation grows.

The only way for the United States to facilitate a prospectively stable power-sharing agreement is by dropping unrealistic "red lines" for Taliban participation and pursuing a genuinely regional strategy for Afghanistan's stabilization. Such a strategy would balance inclusion of the Taliban, backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, by simultaneously including the Taliban's antagonists, backed by their external supporters. These supporters include Russia, India, and--here is the catch, as far as Washington is concerned--Iran.

Like the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara militias that it supported for years as parts of the Northern Alliance, Iran resists power-sharing with the Taliban, for three reasons. First, the Taliban have traditionally persecuted Iran's Afghan allies--especially the Shi'a Hazara--and have even murdered Iranian diplomats. Second, Tehran sees the Taliban as a pawn for the expansion of Pakistani and Saudi influence in Afghanistan--a threatening scenario, from Iran's perspective. Third, our conversations with Iranian policymakers indicate they are deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions in Afghanistan and increasingly doubtful about America's strategic and tactical competence there. As a senior Iranian official asked us earlier this year, "If America wants to make a deal with the Taliban, why did it invade Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban in the first place?"

Following 9/11, Iran worked with the United States on the short-term project of overthrowing the Taliban--with a long-term goal of prompting Washington to reconsider its hostile posture toward the Islamic Republic. Under current circumstances, Iran would need to be persuaded to cooperate once again with the United States in Afghanistan--persuaded, in particular, that power-sharing could be done in a manner that addressed Tehran's longstanding concerns about the Taliban, the regional balance of power, and U.S. intentions toward the Islamic Republic. This cannot be done while Washington is pursuing sanctions against Iran--however feckless they may be--and offering progressively less veiled support for regime change in Tehran (as opposed to Afghanistan). Absent a strategic understanding between Washington and Tehran, the Islamic Republic will support its Afghan allies in resisting a Taliban onslaught backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia--making Afghanistan's renewed civil war a proxy conflict among regional powers as well. Success in Afghanistan--or even avoiding catastrophic failure there--requires more than a new general. It requires a political strategy that recognizes and works with the integral connections between Afghanistan's internal balance of power and the broader balance of power among major states in the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia.

A version of this post also appears on www.TheRaceForIran.com