By the time Surge forces in Iraq began to return home, al-Qaeda in Iraq was nearly defeated, former Sunni insurgents laid down their arms against the US, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – heretofore beholden to Shiite sectarians – launched successful offensives against militias throughout the country. Overall violence was down to levels unseen since the start of the war.
The Surge in Afghanistan did not produce the same level of success. Additional US and Afghan forces have brought greater security to southern Afghanistan, but the eastern part of the country remains unstable. The Taliban, Haqqani network, and insurgents have also adapted effectively. Facing increasing difficulties in attacking local population centers, they have turned to assassinations against high-profile Afghan officials and deadly hit and run attacks against sensitive coalition targets.
There are myriad reasons why a surge of forces proved more effective in Iraq than Afghanistan. But one is especially noteworthy as the US considers next steps in Afghanistan. Unlike in Iraq, the US has not accompanied its surge of forces in Afghanistan with a strategy to counter meddling by the country’s neighbors.
Since 2001, Pakistan and Iran have pursued dual-track policies in Afghanistan. Islamabad has provided logistical support to coalition forces, apprehended some high-profile al-Qaeda operatives, and allowed the US to wage Predator drone attacks on Pakistani territory. Yet Pakistan continues to sponsor insurgent proxies in Afghanistan.
Iran’s role in Afghanistan is similarly mixed. Tehran facilitated the post-Taliban political transition and has supported the Karzai government via significant levels of reconstruction assistance and trade. At the same time, the Revolutionary Guards harbor al-Qaeda while training and equipping the Taliban, regional warlords, and Shiite militias, among other groups.
According to US and Afghan officials, Pakistan and Iran have stepped up support for the insurgency in recent months. As the Wall Street Journal reported in July, the Pentagon has “traced to Iran the Taliban’s acquisition of rockets that give its fighters roughly double the range to attack” coalition targets. The recent downing of the Chinook helicopter near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – the deadliest attack on American forces since the start of combat operations in the country – suggests outside complicity. The Taliban claimed responsibility. But the weapon used in the attack – a rocket-propelled grenade – as well as the spate of sophisticated roadside bombings that have hit American convoys over the past few months, suggests a rise in Pakistani and Iranian meddling.
Despite their different long-term interests in Afghanistan, tactical cooperation between Islamabad and Tehran is plausible. Iran views its Afghanistan policy in the context of its broader tensions with the US. By keeping American forces mired in Afghanistan, Tehran may see an opportunity to extract concessions from the US on its nuclear program, human rights record, terrorism, and other points of contention. A sustained insurgency serves Iranian purposes in encouraging a rapid American withdrawal and in deterring the US from establishing a long-term presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Iran’s relationship with Pakistan and various insurgent groups may represent defensive hedging as well. As US forces draw down, instability in Afghanistan could create a vacuum that would undermine Iranian interests. The political wing of the Iranian regime has strong ties to the Afghan government. A resurgent Taliban – given its fundamentalist Sunni orientation – could pose a strategic threat to Iran. So pursuing an understanding with Pakistan and the Taliban may represent an effort to shape Afghanistan’s post-American future to its advantage.
Pakistan’s goals are likely more ambitious. Some Pakistani military leaders seek to dominate Afghanistan as part of a larger scheme to check Indian power and secure hegemony over Central Asia. Pakistan’s military and intelligence wing favors the emergence of a new regime in Kabul that would function as Islamabad’s satrapy. Under this arrangement, the Taliban’s presence would help to safeguard Pakistani interests in Afghanistan.
Islamabad and Tehran have been able to pursue their Afghanistan strategies on the basis of a key assumption – Cross-border interference will not be met with a serious American response. Even as Pakistani and Iranian complicity in the insurgency has become clear, the US has failed to counter with either significant tactical measures or with a strategy to deter these activities. The US has signaled in effect that it will not risk increased tensions and conflict with Afghanistan’s neighbors, and instead, will tolerate Pakistani and Iranian support for the insurgency as a cost of doing business in Afghanistan. The current American approach is encouraging both countries to persist in their meddling, and may lead to an escalation in tensions.
American passivity has also undermined the US standing in Afghanistan. Some Afghans suspect that the US and the Taliban are in cahoots, and that Washington secretly condones Pakistani and Iranian behavior, as it provides the US with a rationale to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. Other Afghans view the US approach as a sign of American weakness, incompetence, or lack of will.
The US faced a similar dilemma in Iraq. Tehran played a mixed role in Iraq following Saddam’s ouster. Iran bolstered political ties with the Iraqi government and facilitated close economic, religious, and cultural relations between the two states – especially with Iraq’s long-suppressed Shiite communities. But Iran also laid down intelligence networks, deployed militias such as the Badr Brigades, and provided tactical support for various militants in their attacks on coalition and Iraqi targets.
It was only in 2006 – after the insurgency brought Iraq to the brink of a civil war – that the US began to retaliate against Iranian activity. The US moved against Revolutionary Guards assets throughout the country, increased surveillance of the Iran-Iraq border, and captured, killed, and detained scores of local Iranian proxies. The US coordinated its approach to Iran with Iraqi leaders, which bolstered the ability of the Iraqi government to confront Tehran regarding its support for militants. The change in American strategy forced Iran to tamp down its support for the insurgency and laid the groundwork for the success of the Surge.
It is critical now for the US to address external meddling in Afghanistan. With troop withdrawals set to accelerate over the next few years, American influence is bound to decline. Absent a decisive strategy to deal with Pakistani and Iranian support, the insurgency could reverse gains from the surge and derail a political settlement on favorable terms.
The US should pursue a joint strategy with the Afghan government involving the following steps:
- Accelerated negotiations over a long-term strategic partnership between the US and Afghanistan. A deal would have a significant psychological effect on regional players who believe that the US will abandon Afghanistan as it did in the early 1990s.
- Expanded military operations against insurgents in eastern Afghanistan, which would help consolidate gains from the surge in other parts of the country.
- Talks with Pakistan backed by an ultimatum. If Islamabad does not agree to a reasonable political settlement, the US and Afghan governments should accelerate pressure on Pakistan by increasing cross-border attacks against insurgent sanctuaries. The US should also suspend assistance to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services.
- Heightened competition with Iranian influence. The US should encourage the Afghan government to pressure Tehran privately. If Iran does not cease support for the insurgency, coalition and Afghan forces should move against Iranian agents throughout the country. Washington and Kabul should also undertake sustained efforts – especially in western Afghanistan – to decrease dependence on Iranian trade and reconstruction assistance. Given that Iranian behavior is driven by its kaleidoscopic agenda with the US beyond Afghanistan, Washington may need to address Iranian meddling as part of a broader strategy involving threats and inducements on an array of bilateral issues.
- Diplomatic initiatives that engage Afghanistan’s neighbors on a sustainable political settlement. A regional design should involve a US commitment to provide long-term economic assistance, which Washington can structure to incentivize cooperative behavior by Pakistan, Iran, and their proxies. The goal should be to transform Afghanistan into a hub of regional commerce, with infrastructure and trade routes oriented in ways that give Afghanistan’s neighbors a stake in the country’s sovereignty and stability.
The coalition and its Afghan partners remain in a strong position. But without a coherent plan to counter Pakistani and Iranian meddling, gains from the Afghan surge may prove ephemeral at best.
Pratik Chougule served at the State Department in the George W. Bush Administration. He graduated from Brown University and expects to complete his JD from the Yale Law School in 2012.