Cash for influence in Afghanistan: it's U.S. versus Iran

Karzai

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is an unstable and at times unreliable ally for the West and his NATO backers and is a doubtful candidate for the mantle of leading the Afghan nation to "democracy." The admission that Karzai has been accepting bags of money from the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is just the latest in a long line of embarrassing episodes.

The money, Karzai openly admits, is to help run the presidential office. "It's basically a presidential slush fund," an official in Kabul said of the Iranian-supplied money. The payments illustrate the degree to which the Iranian government has penetrated Karzai's inner circle despite his presumed alliance with the United States and the other NATO countries, which have sustained him with military forces and billions of dollars since the Taliban were ousted in 2001.

The situation is such that the New York Times last week quoted a NATO officer as saying that Iran's intelligence agencies were playing both sides of the conflict, providing financing, weapons and training to the Taliban. Iranian agents also financed the campaigns of several Afghans who ran in last month's parliamentary election, the NATO officer said.

The Iranian intelligence services have developed the ability to assassinate opponents and attack American troops inside the country. "I am very concerned that they have a lethal capability and presence inside Afghanistan and Kabul," the NATO officer said. What is not openly admitted is the fact the Iranian regime's influence over developments in Afghanistan dates back to Autumn 2001 when it permitted NATO fighter aircraft to use Iranian air space to bomb Taliban positions deep inside their eastern neighbor's borders.  The Tehran regime was then quietly assisting the U.S. effort to remove the Taliban, one of Tehran's arch adversaries in the Islamic world, from power.

While the United States adopted a tone of self-righteousness about Iran attempting to buy influence in Kabul, Karzai blithely put his foot in it further, stating, "The United States is doing the same thing. They are providing cash to some of our offices."

The fact is that Iran's interests in Afghanistan are similar to those of the U.S. in wanting to have a capable government that exerts authority over the country and prevents problems from spilling over the border. However, the U.S. is in a difficult position, not wanting to be seen to be co-operating with the Iranians over Afghanistan, while still pressing for concessions on the Iranian nuclear program.

It is clear that the Iranian theocratic regime is playing a longer game by seeking to extend its influence in the region. Iraq is an interesting parallel. The West, having toppled Saddam and established the most fragile of democratic structures, can only watch in despair as Shia groups supportive of Iran's theocratic regime are likely to hold the balance of power in the new Iraqi government. At some point the pressure to withdraw from Afghanistan will build in the West, as it becomes increasingly clear that the "war" is unwinnable. A government led by Hamid Karzai may be the best on offer, already compromised by Iranian cash; a more Iran-friendly government still could emerge, given the deeply held Muslim makeup of the country.

The outcome of this power play is by no means certain. It does however give the lie to those seeking to paint Ahmadinejad and his government as one with anti-imperialist credentials. The shadow boxing in Afghanistan may be with the U.S. but the Iranian leader is not primarily concerned with the rights of the Afghan people, any more than he is over the fate of the people of Iran. His primary objective is the extension of the geo-political influence of the Islamic regime in the region and the establishment of a wider Islamic caliphate with Iran at the center.

Progressive and peace-loving forces across the world are right to be concerned about the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the consequences for the citizens of their countries. They should not however be fooled into thinking that the course adopted by the Iranian regime offers an alternative. Not until the people of Afghanistan, Iran and the rest of the region are able to have their say will there be hope for a lasting solution to the problems of the Middle East.

Photo: Afghan President Hamid Karzai addresses the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. (World Economic Forum CC 2.0)