Published On: Thu, Jan 10th, 2013

Iran’s Aggressive Campaign to Undermine U.S. Efforts in Afghanistan

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By Ahmad Khalid Majidyar

As the U.S. winds down its combat mission in Afghanistan, Iran has launched aggressive hard-power and soft-power campaigns to speed up the U.S. troop withdrawal and expand its influence in post-2014 Afghanistan. American and Afghan officials say Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has increased not only material and financial aid to the Taliban, but also its soft-power efforts to incite anti-American sentiments and derail a potential security agreement between Kabul and Washington. Iran is worried that a postwar military presence in Afghanistan would give the U.S. a strategic intelligence and military advantage amid heightened tension between Washington and Tehran over the latter’s controversial nuclear program.

Two days before President Hamid Karzai left for Washington to hold talks with President Barack Obama over America’s future role in Afghanistan on Monday, Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, traveled to Kabul to meet with Karzai and his senior aides and convey Tehran’s opposition to any American military footprint in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Jalili pledged Iran’s continued support for the Afghan government and called for all “aliens” to leave Afghanistan.

Since the fall of the Taliban 11 years ago, Iran has pursued a double-faced policy in Afghanistan. While Tehran has fostered close ties with Kabul and contributed to Afghanistan’s reconstruction, the IRGC’s shadowy Quds Force has provided weapons and monetary assistance to groups affiliated with the Taliban. The Quds Force is responsible for the IRGC’s external special operations and was engaged in a proxy battle against American forces at the peak of insurgency in Iraq. The Ansar Corps, a Quds Force subcommand based in the Iranian city of Mashhad, is responsible for the agency’s operations in Afghanistan. On August 3, 2010, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned General Hossein Musavi, the commander of Ansar Corps, for providing financial support to the Taliban. Afghan officials say Tehran has recently allowed the Taliban to open an office in Mashhad and accuse the Quds Force of running terrorism training camps in the Iranian provinces of Khorasan, Kerman and Sistan va Baluchistan. Recently, Afghan authorities arrested Iranian agents in Kabul and western provinces of Herat, Farah and Nimroz on espionage charges. NATO officials also claim that the Quds Force has recently provided the insurgents with new, more sophisticated weapons.

While U.S. and NATO officials often complain about the IRGC’s support for the Taliban, Iran’s growing soft-power influence in Afghanistan is largely neglected. The Iranian government uses a wide range of soft-power tools such as charity work, religious projects, media programs, refugee deportations, economic influence, and political and diplomatic means to influence policy in Kabul and undermine U.S. interests in the region.

In recent years, Tehran has systematically used Afghan refugees as a bargaining tool for its political ends in Afghanistan. Whenever Kabul’s policies upset Tehran, Iranian officials threaten to expel all Afghan refugees. Last year, Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan sparked a diplomatic row between the two neighbors after he threatened Afghan lawmakers to reject the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with the United States or his country would expel all Afghan refugees immediately. Iran understands that Afghanistan cannot absorb over 2 million returnees under current security and economic hardships. Iran’s forced deportation of Afghan refugees, often without prior consultation with the Afghan government, has at times resulted in political crises in Kabul as well as security and humanitarian problems in western provinces. Mass expulsions also provide a cover for insurgent infiltration into Afghanistan. Unless the U.S. devises a development strategy to help the Afghan government accommodate the returnees, the Iranian government will continue to play the refugee card against the Kabul government, which is often at the expense of U.S. interests.

Moreover, Iran’s political clout is ubiquitous within the Afghan government. U.S. diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks showed that senior Afghan officials at the Presidential Palace and ministries, some members of parliament, and religious leaders are on the Iranian payroll. The Iranian embassy in Kabul bribes Afghan lawmakers to raise anti-American talking points, such as civilian casualties, at parliamentary discussions and urge them to reject a postwar U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Davood Moradian, the director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS), says Iran spends $100 million annually on funding media, religious and cultural organizations. One-third of Afghanistan’s media outlets are said to receive direct aid from Iran. As Afghan and U.S. diplomats are negotiating the terms of a bilateral security agreement, the pro-Iran media inside Afghanistan is busy depicting such a deal as fruitless and warning the Afghans of its consequences.

As the United States and NATO are scaling down involvement in Afghanistan, Iran is doubling down on its soft-power efforts to fill the void. Suffering from crippling sanctions, fearing a potential military strike by the United States or Israel, and concerned about losing its closest regional ally, the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Iran’s increased focus on Afghanistan may be part of the country’s efforts to mitigate the effects of international isolation and also use support for the Taliban elements as a countermeasure against the United States.
After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan’s neighbors, primarily Pakistan and Iran, increased arming and supporting their proxy groups for regional influence. The result was a protracted civil war that allowed the Taliban and al Qaeda to establish their rule over 90 percent of Afghan territory. If the United States and its allies repeat the mistake of disengaging from Afghanistan precipitously, Afghanistan could yet again become a proxy battleground between regional countries and a nucleus for global terrorism, with dire consequences for the United States and the world.

Ahmad Khalid Majidyar is a Senior Research Associate at the American Enterprise Institute, focusing on South Asia and the Middle East.

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