Afghanistan and the breakdown of the balance of power

January 27, 2009

Keeping track of the many countries with a stake in Afghanistan — and the shifting alliances between them — is beginning to feel awfully like one of those school history lessons when you were supposed to understand the complex and tenuous balance of power whose breakdown led to World War One.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer became the latest to call for a regional solution to Afghanistan when he said this week that the United States and its NATO allies must directly engage with Iran if they are to win the war there. “If we are going to succeed in this game, we need to be playing on the right field,” he said. “And that means a more regional approach. To my mind we need a discussion that brings in all the relevant regional players: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, China, Russia and, yes, Iran.”

The idea of seeking Iran’s cooperation as part of a regional strategy for Afghanistan has been around for a while, as I have discussed in previous posts here, here and here. It gained currency during the U.S. presidential campaign among foreign policy analysts looking for an alternative to the policies of former president George W. Bush. But what seems to be new is a certain realpolitik creeping into the discussion after the inauguration of President Barack Obama turned a subject for debate into one of actual policy decisions.

Shi’ite Iran has reasons to cooperate with the United States over Afghanistan. It is deeply suspicious of the hardline Sunni ideology of the Taliban which regards Shi’ites as apostates. But at the same time, among the issues up for discussion is how far the United States and Iran can find common ground, given Washington’s concerns about Tehran’s nuclear programme and backing for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Then even if Washington were to find an accommodation with Iran over Afghanistan, where would Russia – one of the other regional players seen as crucial to a regional solution — fit into the picture?  According to this piece in Eurasia, Moscow might act to undermine any rapprochement between the United States and Iran, fearing this would damage its commercial interests and threaten its stranglehold on gas supplies to Europe.

Russia in turn seems to be flirting with China, by suggesting that the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation could play a bigger role in stabilising Afghanistan, as discussed in this post. Like Iran, Russia is expected to demand a price for help over Afghanistan which in Moscow’s case may include less ardent support for NATO aspirants Ukraine and Georgia and a review of the missile shield due to be set up in the Czech Republic and Poland.

And just in case Obama missed the point, the Moscow Times spelled it out in an op-ed before his inauguration. “Afghanistan may well define your foreign policy legacy the way Iraq defined Bush’s. You will need all the support you can muster, including from Iran. You will also need Russia’s support. Moscow understands that the stability of its southern flank will hugely depend on what happens on the Hindu Kush mountain range in eastern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. But Moscow is torn between giving support to the West and preparing for the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The latter would mean cutting deals with the Taliban locally and relying on China strategically. You can help Russia make the right choice.”

As if all that was not complicated enough, the attack on Mumbai in November last year has soured relations between India and Pakistan, dashing hopes that by improving relations between the two countries the United States might reduce tensions in Afghanistan, where both have competed for influence.

In the early years of the last century, it took only the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo to show the weakness of the balance of power that had held the peace until then. So what do we make of today’s shifting allegiances? No more than the bedding down of a new century, and the jostling for influence under a newly elected U.S. administration? Or a cause for fear?

(Photos by Bob Strong in Afghanistan)

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