Sunday, October 21, 2007

Afghanistan and the Region: The View from Herat

This week (October 17-20) Afghanistan hosted the 17th meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Economic Cooperation Organization in Herat. This marked the first time that Afghanistan had assumed the chairmanship of the organization or that ECO, which is based in Tehran, had met in Afghanistan.

The meeting's official proceedings dealt with regional economic cooperation, but this meeting in western Afghanistan, which depends economically on Iran, provided an opportunity for staking out positions on regional tensions. During the meeting an as-yet unidentified suicide bomber attacked the homecoming motorcade of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Karachi, killing 139 people and threatening the political transition negotiated between Bhutto and military ruler Pervez Musharraf with the support (or at the urging) of the U.S. The meeting also coincided with the resignation of Iranian nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani. Larijani's replacement by a junior ally of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad just before a key meeting with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana made a negotiated settlement of Iran's nuclear issue even less likely. As the meeting was ending, U.S. Vice President Cheney told a conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (a think-tank closely associated with the "pro-Israel" lobby): "The Iranian regime needs to know that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences." Calling Iran "the world's most active state sponsor of terror," Cheney said, "Our country and the entire international community cannot stand by as a terror-supporting state fulfills its most aggressive ambitions."

President Karzai played a balancing act. Hosting this conference in Herat pleased Iran, which had consistently urged that ECO, based in Tehran, should play a central role in regional economic cooperation for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, over objections of the U.S. In his speech opening the conference, Karzai gave a nod to US concerns, which Kabul shares:
We, the Muslims, must show the true image of Islam to the world and this will be impossible unless we eliminate terrorists where ever they are and fight them collectively.
In a bilateral meeting with Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Manouchehr Mottaki, however, Karzai emphasized the friendly ties between the two nations in a seeming rebuff to the U.S. position. Karzai had done so in the U.S. in August. Interviewed on CNN, Karzai characterized Iran as a "helper" of Afghanistan, a characterization with which President Bush took issue at a press availability after the two leaders' August 7 meeting in Camp David.

In Herat Mottaki appeared self confident. He announced an additional $600,000 in aid for Afghanistan. In answer to a journalist's question, he stated:
The people of Afghanistan will never allow America to use Afghanistan against any other country. This our belief, this is our trust.
Referring to the "people" implied that Iran might rely not solely on the Afghan government, but on its direct relations with the "people." Mottaki appeared to gloat over the U.S.'s situation:

Mottaki added that the United States had exhausted itself with the war in Iraq and "is not in a position to create another conflict in our region."

"Americans, not based on our statements ... but based on statements by American politicians have been defeated in Iraq," the foreign minister said.

Simultaneously, Tehran announced how it would respond to a U.S. attack:

"In the first minute of an invasion by the enemy, 11,000 rockets and cannons will be fired at enemy bases," said Mahmoud Chaharbaghi, a brigadier general in the elite Revolutionary Guards.

"This volume and speed of firing would continue," added Chaharbaghi, who is commander of artillery and missiles of the Guards' ground forces.

These "bases" are those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kabul has also received information that the Iranian government had informed its ambassadors that though Afghanistan is a "friend," one must sacrifice even friends when survival is at stake. This is a reference to Tehran's belief that the goal of U.S. policy is the overthrow of the Iranian regime, not simply the termination of uranium enrichment.

Karzai also met Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, who announced that Pakistan would host another meeting of the joint Afghan-Pakistani "Peace Jirga" after Pakistan's general elections next year. The attack on the Bhutto convoy, however, raised doubts as to whether those elections could be held. Writing in Asia Times Online, the consistently interesting (though inconsistently accurate) Syed Saleem Shahzad called the attack "The first shot . . . fired in the battle that Islamists have vowed to wage against the Washington-inspired and brokered attempt at regime change in Pakistan." According to Shahzad:
The attack was hardly a surprise. Militants see Bhutto's return to Pakistani politics as a Western-backed coup against Islamists in Pakistan, akin to the arrival in the Afghan capital, Kabul, of the US-backed Northern Alliance in 2001. Militant leader Baitullah Mehsud had instructed pro-al-Qaeda cells in Karachi to kill her for three major offenses against the Islamists, which he listed as:

- She is the only opposition politician who supported the military attack earlier this year on Islamabad's Lal Masjid (Red Mosque), a hotbed of Islamist radicalism, and she coninues to condemn the Lal Masjid ideologues; - She has stated that she would allow incursions by US forces into Pakistan in pursuit of Osama bin Laden; - She has stated that she would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to question Dr A Q Khan, the former leading nuclear scientist accused of passing Pakistani nuclear technology to anti-Western countries.
Baitullah Mehsud, however, states he "had nothing to do with it," and many of Bhutto's supporters suspect that elements of the Pakistan military and intelligence apparatus were involved. Bhutto had previously told the Sunday Telegraph:
We need a security service that is professional in its approach, which rises above ties of religious or political sentiment. I have strong reservations about some of the people still operating within the intelligence services, and we need reforms to get rid of them.
Bhutto was referring to those in the ISI who support the Taliban and even al-Qaida. Her dismissal in 1990 of General Hamid Gul as Director of the ISI was key to the army's decision to oust her that year and defeat her in rigged elections. Military appointments and policy toward India and Afghanistan are considered by the Pakistan army to be off limits to civilian officials. Now, as in 1989-1990, it is likely that Bhutto's negotiations with the army (carried out though the current ISI director) also focus on this issue. Maintaining "reserve areas" of military control is a frequent demand of military institutions trying to negotiate their extrication from direct rule. By announcing her intention to clean up the ISI, Bhutto promised Kabul and Washington that she would carry out the policies they have been asking for, while threatening the most sensitive prerogatives of the Pakistani military.

Such is the region in which Vice-President Cheney aims to impose "serious consequences" on Iran if it moves toward acquiring the capability to manufacture the nuclear weapons that Pakistan already has. Pakistan, of course, is likely to have been a source of the technology used by Iran for uranium enrichment. But Pakistan is the U.S.'s most important non-NATO ally, while Iran is the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism. The views from Washington and Herat could not be more different.


Mark Pyruz said...

Iran has had plenty of time to prepare for a potential US strike. At the moment, they've postured themselves into a stance of deterrence, as Br. Gen. Chaharbaghi's comments so colorfully illustrate. If and when hostilities do break out, Iran's defense could consist of a range of response options based on the scope of a US attack. But there could just as well be a preset, determinable trigger point that makes for an all-out ballistic and cruise missile burst. Perceived missile survivability from attack is key to the favored response strategy chosen by the Iranians. That survivability could be enhanced by decoys, such as full-scale Shahab mockups, as seen in recent Tehran military day parades.

Gulf strike options include the use of surface-to surface and anti-ship missiles, as well as elite seaborne assault and submarine attack. Depending on Iranian planning and the scope of a US attack, it is assumed that the Iranians would attempt to block the straight of Hormuz and deny the use of the Persian Gulf for naval shipping. The longer that straight remains impassable, or the longer the Gulf remains too dangerous to navigate, the better the chances of an internationally brokered ceasefire, with terms advantageous to Iran. Gulf states such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar, which accommodate US military facilities may also be subject to attack. One of the lessons of the 2nd Lebanon War was the successful use of rocket artillery in exacting a regional condition of economic siege, as demonstrated in northern Israel and the port city of Haifa. This type of strategy may also find application in the regional context of a Gulf war.

The Persian Gulf actually affords a strike advantage in terms of its geographic containment. Iran has demonstrated abilities at tracking USN naval movements. Current USN deployment in the Gulf offers, perhaps, an unprecedented array of targets for a strike force. There has been a long standing debate in US military circles as to the survivability of the aircraft carrier, especially under such conditions of restricted maneuver. Should the carriers suffer in-operability from enemy fire, it could conceivably alter the perceived balance of power in the region, and possibly even change the nature of naval warfare in general.

By comparison to its Gulf strike options, Iranian responses in the Iraq and Afghanistan theater are more predictable, at least at the operational level. In these theaters, Iran is provided with a range of tactical options, which include Pasdaran direction and training of local militias, unrestrained supply and use of sophisticated ATGM's and MANPADS, and the expanded use of rocket and large caliber mortar artillery. This would offer a host of potential complications to static US military assets such as the Green Zone, and to coalition operations as a whole. The Iraq and Afghan theaters of conflict should be considered Iran's long term defense strategy, extending beyond the limited resources of its Gulf strike and air defense options. This strategy could also be applied as an exclusive response to a more limited US strike.

Naturally, the Iranians have studied in detail US offensive air operations of the two Gulf Wars and the Serbian War, as well as Israeli air combat during the 2nd Lebanon War. The First Gulf War was even more disastrous for the Iraqi Air Force (IrAF) than the Iran-Iraq War, where the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) performed remarkably well, given the lack of US factory support for its aircraft. The Serbian War, 2nd Gulf War and 2nd Lebanon War found no real opposition to US and Israeli warplanes and cruise missiles. Contrary to this trend, Iranian defenses might possibly constitute some level of short term challenge to US (or Israeli) offensive air operations. Notable is the purchase by Iran from Russia of the new Tor M1 missile systems, intended as a defense against cruise missiles and strike aircraft. Of special interest, perhaps, is the refurbishment of the remaining F-14A Tomcat fleet.

Russia is a wild card. Encounters involving minor powers are always an opportunity to test new weapons systems. The Soviets tested warplanes such as the MiG-25RB during the Iran-Iraq War, likewise the French with their Super 530 missile. And the Russians reportedly field tested their latest ATGM against the US M1 tank during the first week of OIF. The Russians could conceivably provide a limited deployment of their newest weapons systems, in order to test their effectiveness against USN and even USAF assets.

This commentary offers only a brief, selective discussion, and does not represent a detailed and complete analysis of Iran's military potential in response to a US attack.

Anonymous said...

World news about Afghanistan. Breaking news and archival information about its people, politics and economy from The New York Times.

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