By Ahmed Rashid (03/29/2000 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Western and Pakistani diplomats say that during the winter months, Iran has been pouring millions of dollars of arms and ammunition to the Northern Alliance forces led by Ahmad Shah Masud. Iran's efforts are in preparation for what is expected to be a summer of heavy fighting as the Taliban launch a major offensive to conquer the remaining 20% of north eastern Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance. Arms supplies reach the Northern Alliance by train, crossing Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to southern Tajikistan from where they are trucked across the Amu Darya River to northeastern Afghanistan. Heavy fighting between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance is expected in the next few weeks.

Iran has also launched a major effort to try and bring the divided leadership of the Northern Alliance into a stronger alliance on a common platform. Ahmad Shah Masud heads the Northern Alliance forces which are largely composed of his fellow Tajiks, but include some Hazaras, Uzbeks and Pashtuns. However, other fighting groups amongst the non-Tajiks are reluctant to accept Masud as their overall leader, while Iran is keen not to allow Masud to emerge as the overall leader of the Northern Alliance because of long standing differences with him and his independent actions. As a result, Iran has been separately supplying forces of the Shia-sect Hazara ethnic group in the Hazarajat of central Afghanistan and is trying to revive the disparate Uzbek groups.

In mid-March, the Iranians organized a reconciliation meeting between the two rival Uzbek leaders, General Rashid Dostum and General Abdullah Malik in Meshad, close to Iran's border with Afghanistan. Both said they plan to return to Afghanistan to rally Uzbek forces in northern Afghanistan opposed to the Taliban. General Malik rebelled against Dostum in 1997 and sided with the Taliban who then captured the northern stronghold of Mazar-e-Sharif. However, after ousting General Dostum who fled to exile in Turkey, Malik switched sides again and was eventually driven out by the Taliban in 1998. General Malik has been in exile in Iran ever since.

IMPLICATIONS: Iran is actively undermining the military regime in Pakistan that shows no signs of lessening its assistance to the Taliban. Iran has been helping co-ordinate funds, supplies and political support for the Northern Alliance from India, Russia, Uzbekistan and Turkey, to counter Pakistan that continues to provide aid to the Taliban. Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan that back the Northern Alliance have encouraged reconciliation of the disparate Uzbek forces. However Uzbek General Dostum has long running differences with Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masud and it is not yet clear whether Dostum and Masud will work together or separately in the future.

Iran has stepped up efforts on several peace initiatives. In order to counter the United States and Italian backed initiative by the Rome based ex-King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan to set up a Loya Jirga or Grand Tribal Council, Teheran has launched its own Loya Jirga effort called the Cyprus Process. The Cyprus Process includes dozens of former prominent commanders and tribal elders. However, the involvement of relatives and commanders from Gulbuddin Hikmetyar's Hizbe-Islami in the Cyprus Process, has led to strident criticism of the Iranian initiative. Gulbuddin Hikmetyar, who has little support inside Afghanistan, is in exile in Iran and is blamed by many Afghans for the destruction of Kabul between 1992-95.

Afghanistan’s ex-king Zahir Shah plans to send delegations to meet with the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in April and both sides have agreed to the delegations. At the same time Iran has snubbed Pakistan's call for a joint Pakistani-Iranian peace initiative, by using Iran’s presidency of the Organization of the Islamic Council (OIC) to launch an OIC peace initiative. Representatives of both the Taliban and Northern Alliance have met with an OIC delegation in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia but progress on direct peace talks between the two sides have been stalled by the Taliban's insistence that the Northern Alliance accept Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar as Afghanistan's overall leader.

CONCLUSION: Iran has become even more engaged in Afghanistan than ever before. Iran has made several overtures to the Taliban, opening its border with Afghanistan to allow cross-border trade and fuel supplies to southern Afghanistan. It is holding talks with the Taliban to reopen its embassy and consulates in Afghanistan. And Iran is encouraging the Taliban to send representatives to the Cyprus Process. Other countries have launched peace initiatives at a time when the United Nations peace process appears stalled and paralyzed. Japan has held meetings with all sides in the conflict in Tokyo, while Switzerland is also trying to organize similar meetings in Bern.

Iran is determined to thwart Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan and with the Taliban. Iran’s moves are having an impact, creating rifts between Pakistan and the Taliban while offering the Taliban better relations with the Northern Alliance. Iran’s dual track policy of strengthening the Northern Alliance militarily while launching peace initiatives are designed to give the Northern Alliance increased military strength to resist the Taliban. Iran’s efforts seek to increase its influence within Afghanistan and appease the international community by launching peace initiatives that show Iran as a moderate force in the region.

AUTHOR BIO: Ahmed Rashid is the Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review.


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