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Afghanistan’s Troubling Neighbors

Prepared by: Greg Bruno
Updated: August 13, 2007

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Hundreds of Pakistani and Afghan tribal leaders assembled in Kabul at a long-planned peace conference (AP), and the late arrival of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf added an unexpected legitimacy to efforts to quell unrest attributed in part to fighters based in his country. The four-day council, or jirga, was billed as an opportunity to ease violence and shore up relations between two of the United States’ key allies in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz attended the meetings before Musharraf’s surprise appearance, where the general vowed to defeat cross-border extremism (AFP). But some questioned the council’s usefulness (FT) before the meeting began. “It will be an exercise in futility,” one Western ambassador in Islamabad said.

The jirga in Kabul comes amid a rare rift between Washington and Kabul over Afghanistan’s other highly influential neighbor—Iran. Five years after rising to power, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has largely walked in lockstep (NYT) with President Bush on issues related to terrorism, the opium trade, and the stability of his fledgling government. But the issue of Iran’s influence on the Taliban, discussed in this Backgrounder, has yielded troubling cracks.

Ahead of August 6 talks at Camp David, Karzai painted a grim picture (CNN) of security in his country. Yet he refused to place even partial blame on Iran, repeatedly accused by U.S. intelligence officials of moving arms into the country. In June, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters the steady flow of Iranian-made weapons and bombs into Afghanistan—including explosively formed penetrators, blamed for a growing number of American deaths—have been crossing the border in numbers too large to have gone unnoticed by Tehran. Iranian arms transfers, if corroborated, would signal an about-face for a country that helped topple the Taliban in 2001. Yet Karzai called Iran “a helper and a solution” to stabilizing the security situation in his country. At Camp David, Bush left little doubt he disagreed with his counterpart’s pro-Iranian assessment. “They're not a force for good,” Bush said.  

Some experts say the disagreement distracts from Afghanistan’s most serious threat. Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University, told Harper’s blog in June the real threat to Afghan stability is not Iran, but Pakistan, where the Taliban “openly train, recruit, rest, and raise funds”. Teresita C. Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently told CFR.org’s Bernard Gwertzman that Pakistan’s “approach to the extremists” is unlikely to change anytime soon. Others, like Col. Christopher Langton, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, suggest Iranian weapons are entering Afghanistan via rogue elements unaffiliated with the government of Tehran, which has repeatedly denied U.S. allegations of government-sponsored arms dealing. Gates provided a more subtle reading. “Iran is playing both sides of the street in Afghanistan,” Gates told CNN, providing weapons while trying to stabilize the country’s government.

The bigger question may be what threat the Taliban actually poses to the Afghan government and how to control continuing terrorist attacks, widely seen as eroding Kabul’s grip on power. Karzai downplayed (al-Jazeera) the degree of the Taliban threat to his government. But some regional politicians see a more immediate problem.

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