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What is BHO going to do in Afghanistan?

March 28th, 2009 - 6:17 pm

The Times Online describes talks between the US and Iran over Afghanistan — in Moscow.

Iranian and American officials have held their first talks about ending the war in Afghanistan amid signs that President Barack Obama’s efforts to thaw relations with Tehran are paying off. While television cameras focused on Obama in Washington during the unveiling of his strategy for Afghanistan last Friday, US and Iranian diplomats were holding a remarkable meeting in Moscow. The Russian initiative brought together Patrick Moon, the US diplomat in charge of south and central Asia, and Mehdi Akhundzadeh, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, as well as a British diplomat who has been acting as a mediator.

“We’ve turned a page to have Iranians and Americans at the same table all discussing Afghanistan,” Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, told delegates. …

Friday’s meeting was held under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a six-member regional security group including Russia, China and central Asian states, to discuss combating terrorism and drug trafficking in Afghanistan. Those present included Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, the foreign ministers of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and senior British diplomats.

Meanwhile, the policy differences between the US and Hamid Karzai seem to have been resolved in a manner that Karzai likes. The Washington Post reports:

After months of tension between the Afghan leader and officials in Washington, especially over civilian casualties caused by Western military forces, Karzai seemed pleasantly surprised by Obama’s prescriptions for Afghanistan’s problems, calling his plan “better than we were expecting.”

Like a cross-section of Afghans interviewed Saturday, Karzai said he was especially glad that Obama explicitly endorsed two ideas Afghan officials have been stressing for several years: that the fight against Islamist terrorism must focus on militant safe havens in next-door Pakistan and that negotiations with Taliban insurgents are essential to ending the conflict in Afghanistan. …

Obama’s strategy calls for a major expansion of Afghan security forces and the deployment of 4,000 new U.S. troops to train them, on top of an additional 17,000 combat troops. It also proposes a boost in U.S. civilian expert assistance, more economic aid to Pakistan in return for stronger action against Islamist militant groups, and support for a better-run, more honest and responsive Afghan government as part of an overarching focus on fighting terrorism in the region.

What do these two developments suggest? My guess is that Iran, which has historically had great influence in Afghanistan and whose road network supplies the Afghan economy with consumer goods has been mollified in some way. The Iranians are likely to want concessions for any agreements they may enter into with the United States. There may be linkage with Hamas and Hezbollah and with Iranian nuclear weapons. But we don’t know what just yet. Exactly what price the US will pay for cooperation with the Iranian remains to be seen. With respect to shutting down the Taliban in the Pashtun areas within Pakistan, the question is whether “assistance” can achieve this, or whether the assistance will be used Pakistan for purposes other than intended. Taken together, the two stories suggest that the the Obama administration has decided to enlist regional actors and the Afghan government to split up and perhaps neutralize the Pashtun structure but that the price paid to Iran will be high and that the means that are to be employed of unproven effectiveness.  The good news is that Obama may have found a key; the bad news is that the key may be to an empty room.

Open thread.

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