Pakistan: winning over Tehran and Kabul

March 13, 2010

iran pakistanAccording to the Iranian foreign minister, quoted by Press TV, this week’s visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to Islamabad was related to plans for a trilateral summit between Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The relationship between the three countries and potential influence on Afghanistan gets a lot less attention than the strained ties between India and Pakistan. But it’s worth watching closely for the way it can shape the regional competition for influence in Afghanistan ahead of an expected drawdown of U.S. troops in 2011.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was in Kabul this week, and shortly afterwards Karzai flew to Islamabad.

Press TV quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki as saying that while Karzai’s visit was “not directly linked” to President Ahmadinejad’s trip, it was related to a decision made during talks with the Iranian delegation about holding a trilateral summit in Islamabad. “I think based on the negotiation between Ahmadinejad and Karzai, he will also be in contact with President (Asif Ali) Zardari,” the Iranian foreign minister said.

Pakistan had long been suspicious of Iranian influence in Afghanistan, but has been making efforts recently to improve relations with Tehran.  Its ambassador to Tehran suggested last month that Pakistan had helped in the capture of Jundollah Sunni rebel group leader Abdolmalek Rigi, who Iran had said was based in its Baluchistan province.

Karzai, meanwhile, after building a close relationship with India after the fall of the Pakistan-backed Taliban in 2001, made all the right noises in Islamabad about improving relations there.  Islamabad says India has been using its presence in Afghanistan to destabilise Pakistan, particularly by backing a separatist revolt in Baluchistan (which operates separately from Jundollah) — a charge New Delhi denies. It looked sourly on Karzai’s close ties with New Delhi which it saw as underpinning a proxy war in Afghanistan between Pakistan and India which had spilled over from their long-standing dispute in Kashmir.

Speaking in Islamabad, Karzai said he did not want any country using Afghanistan against another. ”The bottom line is, Afghanistan does not want any proxy wars on its territory,” he said.  “India is a close friend of Afghanistan but Pakistan is a brother of Afghanistan. Pakistan is a twin brother … we’re conjoined twins, there’s no separation.” 

Karzai is keen to achieve some kind of reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban. But with Pakistan arresting Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and other Taliban leaders, it has made it clear that any reconciliation will need its help.

That puts it in a uniquely strong position to set the terms for any eventual political settlement with the Taliban – expected to include a requirement that India scale back its presence in Afghanistan.  Getting Tehran on board in this rather complicated juggling act — if necessary by helping Iran crack down on Jundollah – would strengthen its hand further.

(File photo of the three presidents together at an earlier meeting.)

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