Why An Iranian Strike At Afghanistan Might Succeed

EDITOR'S NOTE: Iran appears to be mobilizing for a military strike on Afghanistan in retaliation for the murder of Iranian diplomats and journalists -- an incident largely ignored by the international community. Whether or not the U.S. approves, a "sharp blow" by Teheran at the Taliban may succeed and reshape the politics of the region for some time to come. PNS associate editor William O. Beeman is an anthropologist at Brown University specializing in Iran, where he lived and worked for seven years.Iran is arming itself for war in Afghanistan and it has not only strong motivation but a fair chance of success. Should the United States decide to involve itself in this conflict, it would be a major mistake.Iran has a strong claim of provocation to justify its actions. The Taliban -- either through direct action or through inaction -- murdered a group of Iranian diplomats and journalists in the city of Mazar-e Sharif last August. The murders took place after the Taliban gave Iran explicit guarantees that these individuals would be safe. Taliban officials showed no concern or remorse over the loss of these lives.More galling for the Iranians was the fact that the United Nations also seemed indifferent to this violation of diplomatic protocol. It was late in its condemnation of the Taliban, and made a weak call for an investigation only after the Iranians had been screaming for justice for several weeks. For Iran this seems to repeat a pattern of international indifference to its legitimate concerns, thus making it unlikely that the Taliban will listen to anyone wanting to curb their more aggressive tendencies.Iran is also strongly motivated for war. In addition to the desire to support its ethnic cousins among Tajiks and Shi'a Muslims, Iran is looking east. It's ethnic roots extend through northern Afghanistan to territory now in eastern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, these areas were part of Iran. Even today, Persian, Dari and Tajik, the languages spoken in the region, are really slight variants of the same language. In the 20th century, the Central Asian area was under Soviet rule and inaccessible. Now, however, the possibility of a continuous Iranian linguistic and cultural area is really possible, if only the Taliban can be eliminated.Iran realizes too that there are economic benefits to be gained. By controlling Afghanistan, Iran would control all possible pipeline routes for export of oil and gas from the vast eastern Caspian petroleum fields, and would become the main route for export of other goods from the region.Iran could succeed in its campaign. It has well-trained military forces, and good equipment. The Taliban movement seems to have virtually complete control over Afghanistan. However, the Taliban's base of support is ultimately fragile.The Taliban is not so much a religious as an ethnic movement driven by only one of the several groups that make up that country -- the Pushtuns, who are Sunni Muslims. The other principal groups -- Tajiks, who are ethnic Persians, Uzbeks, Baluchis and Brahuis -- have been suppressed by the Taliban. Shi'a Muslims have been particularly oppressed. Afghanistan has never been a true nation state, and the domination of one ethnic group over others has never lasted. The "sharp blow" theory of warfare -- in which one strong attack is supposed to cause the collapse of a fragile regime -- has not been very successful in recent conflicts in the region, but it might work for the Iranians here.The Taliban movement has been propped up by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and also by the United States in a quiet move to establish influence with a clearly anti-Iranian regime in the region. U.S. and Saudi support depends on cooperation by Pakistan. Support for the Taliban is controversial in Pakistan now, and sufficient pressure from Iran might well cause the Pakistanis to withdraw, and with them the Saudis and Americans.The Russians, who are opposed to the Taliban, have recently moved two army divisions to the border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan and are spoiling for a fight after the debilitating conflict they endured in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Russians might not directly help Iran, but they would prevent the Taliban from receiving aid through its northern border. Opposition to the Taliban is now located in Tajikistan, and the Russians would allow communication across the border. They would also stop the flow of drugs from heroin factories in Afghanistan, which aside from aid from foreigners, have financed the Taliban regime thus far.If Iranians do all the right things, the Taliban will be exposed and vulnerable, landlocked and without reliable allies. Iranian victory would be quite decisive, and would reshape the politics of the region for some time to come.Iran's critics will doubtless urge that Iran be stopped if it goes to war, and will try to marshal U.S. military resources to that end. This would be a tactical and a political mistake -- bogging the U.S. down in a quagmire conflict in a landlocked Asian nation far from U.S. supply lines. Moreover, the chances for peace and stability in the region are frankly greater under Iranian influence than under the rule of the Taliban.The United States has been unable to foment a useful dialog with Teheran's leaders to aid in positive development in the region. At this point, Iran seems capable of following its own destiny -- whether the United States approves or not.

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