AFGHANISTAN IS ONE of several contexts in which the long-term common interests of the U.S. and Iran have been overshadowed by the animus originating in the 1953 CIA-led coup in Iran and the Iranian revolution of 1979, to the detriment of the interests of the U.S., Iran, and Afghanistan. This confrontation has served the interests of the Pakistan military, Taliban, and al-Qaida. Re-establishing the basis for U.S.-Iranian cooperation in Afghanistan would provide significant additional leverage over Pakistan, on whose territory the leadership of both the Taliban and al-Qaida are now found.And it ends:
There is, however, a major strategic judgment to be revisited. The military and intelligence agencies of both Pakistan and Iran have systematically used asymmetrical warfare, including terrorism, as a tool of their security policy. Which of them poses a greater threat to U.S. national interest and international peace and security? How should responses to these two threats be balanced? Since the Iranian revolution, the U.S. has overreacted to the Iranian threat and engaged in systematic appeasement of Pakistan, which is now home to the leadership of both al-Qaida and the Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistani). These countries are rivals for influence in Afghanistan and are sponsoring competing infrastructure projects for road transport and energy trade. Iran and India are building a combined rail and road link from the Iranian port of Chah Bahar to Afghanistan’s major highway. Pakistan, with Chinese aid, is building the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan, aiming at a north-south route to Central Asia. “Taliban” regularly attack Indian road building crews in southwest Afghanistan, and Pakistan charges that India is supporting Baluch insurgents from its consulates in Afghanistan.
A reevaluation of the threats originating in Iran and Pakistan should lead to a recalibration of U.S. policy in Afghanistan to tilt away from Pakistan and more toward Iran. Yet it would be wrong and destructive to treat Pakistan with the type of enmity now reserved for Iran. Like Iran, Pakistan’s policy is motivated by a combination of genuine security threats, ideological aspirations, and institutional interest. In Pakistan’s more open political system, it is far easier for the U.S. to engage with allies inside the country against the security services whose covert policies the U.S. finds threatening.Ultimately, U.S. interests would be best served by supporting efforts to extend and improve governance and security in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, thereby depriving al-Qaida and its epigones of refuge on either side of the border. Using Afghanistan as a base for anti-Iran policies handicaps the U.S. in pressing for Pakistani cooperation, thus undermining one of the country’s most important strategic objectives. Of course, such recalibration will also require shifts in Iranian policy away from the path it has taken. Clearly abandoning any U.S. agenda of forcible regime change in Iran will make such a shift much more likely.