Afghanistan: An Iranian perspective
By Hossein Shahidi
November 21, 2001
The tragic fates of three groups of people have been intertwined in the
drama which has been played out in Afghanistan since the beginning of the
American and British military attacks on the 7th of October. In addition
to paying respect to all three groups, they need to mentioned here to set
the broader context for an examination of what is happening in Afghanistan.
The first group are the nearly 5,000 people who lost their lives in terrorist
attacks in the United States on September 11th. It was in their names that
the attacks on Afghanistan were launched, although some of their survivors
declared their opposition to violence being used to seek justice for the
loss of their loved ones. One of the many sad aspects of September 11th
tragedy is that we still do not know exactly how many people lost their
lives in New York City, let alone who they were and who should be grieving
The second group are the more than one thousand killed in Palestine and
Israel since the 28th of September 2000, most of them Palestinians. It was
apparently in the name of these and other Palestinian victims of partition
and occupation since 1948 that the attacks on the United States were launched
- although it is very unlikely that any of their survivors were asked for
their views on the matter. It is certain that had they been asked, very
few of them would have sanctioned the killing of several thousand innocent
people in the United States in revenge for the loss of their own loved ones.
The third group of victims involved in this drama are the 1.5 million
Afghans who lost their lives in the past 22 years, in wars fought in their
land, and in their name, but not with their informed consent. Over the same
period, 400,000 Afghans have been injured by the explosion of mines which
have also destroyed much of the country's agriculture, forcing many Afghans
to grow the opium poppy. Strangely enough, there has been no call for the
identification and prosecution of those responsible for such a massive loss
of life in Afghanistan. Part of the reason must lie in the fact that the
chief suspects in this case would have to include Britain and the United
States, who are now in hot pursuit of the Taliban and the chief suspect
in the September 11th atrocities, Osama bin Laden.
Historically, many Iranians' image of Afghans is that of the tribal chiefs
who in the 18th century put an end to the Safavid Dynasty. Better-informed
Iranians would point out that the Afghan tribal leaders had been under Iranian
rule, and could well be said to have rebelled against their own government.
Iranian academics also remind their fellow-citizens that that one of the
most powerful monarchs to rule Iran, Sultan Mahmoud, was from Ghazni, in
present day Afghanistan, and that many of the most celebrated figures in
Persian culture, such as the philosopher/poet Jalaleddin Balkhi or Rumi,
emerged in what is today Afghanistan.
Our common picture of Afghanistan in modern times has not been much clearer
than the historical one. In the 1970s, well before Iran and Afghanistan
became involved in their respective two decades of political turmoil, most
Iranians' notion of their neighbour consisted of a country with a monarch
called Mohammed Zaher, who did not rank very highly compared with Iran's
own Mohammad-Reza Shah, and a very popular singer called Ahmad Zaher. We
also knew that one of our popular singers, Googoosh, was pretty high up
in the charts in Afghanistan, and that one of her most successful numbers
was in fact based on an Afghan folk tune.
By the end of 1970s, both Mohammad-Zaher and Mohammad-Reza shahs had
been deposed; Iran had an Islamic Republic, soon to become involved in an
eight year old war with its Arab national-socialist neighbour, Iraq, backed
by a whole array of bigger powers, including the United States, several
European countries and most Arab governments. Afghanistan, for its part,
had been equipped with a Soviet Style People's Republic, propped up by Soviet
troops, who soon became entangled in a ten year war with tribal Moslem fighters,
backed by, among others, the US, Britain, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Ahmad
Zaher had been killed in a mysterious car accident, and Googoosh had beem
forced into a 20-year period of public silence.
While Iran's Islamic authorities would have been only too willing to
help their fellow Moslems in their struggle against the infidel Soviets,
the war with Iraq did not allow them to open an eastern front with the Soviet
forces. Although Iranians did become involved in the fight against the Soviet
troops as individuals and groups, the Iranian government maintained diplomatic
ties with Afghanistan's Soviet-backed government. Economically, the fighting
in Afghanistan came to Iran's rescue, sending hundreds of thousands of Afghan
refugees into Iran to take on the jobs left vacant by Iranian men who had
been drafted into the war.
Secure with Guns
The picture did not change much after the Soviet withdrawal form Afghanistan,
which came soon after the end of the Iran-Iraq war; nor a few years later
when the Afghan Mojahedin took control of Afghanistan. Although Iran did
try to establish ties with all Afghan factions, in practice it had closer
links with the Shia and Persian speaking groups, who were in a minority.
It also had much more limited resources to use in Afghanistan. Hence, Iran's
degree of influence among Afghan factions never reached that enjoyed by
Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian authorities have been criticised for not having developed
a comprehensive policy on Afghanistan; for having backed the wrong factions
at the wrong time; and for having backed too many competing factions at
the same time, with the result that they would fight other, rather than
form a united front to push for a bigger share of power for all of them.
In particular, this is said to have worked to the disadvantage of the Shia
community who should have been Iran's natural protégés in
Such criticism may be valid from a theoretical point of view. However,
now that we know that no other government, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabic
and the United States have had a clear, consistent Afghan policy at the
time, one can perhaps be more forgiving to the inexperienced officials of
a state with much smaller resources and much bigger internal and external
This is not in any way an apologia for the ill-informed actions taken
by the Iranian authorities that have been criticised by the Iranian administration
itself. One of these was the decision not to withdraw the Iranian diplomats
from Mazar-e Sharif before the Taliban take-over in 1998. The murder of
the diplomats, and an Iranian journalist, nearly led to a full-scale war
between the two countries.
Iran's ability to influence the course of events in Afghanistan became
even more limited after the Taliban's seizure of Kabul in 1996. But the
change of regime in Kabul was not entirely without benefits for Iran. On
the one hand, the Taliban's ability to establish a degree of calm in Afghanistan
slowed down the flow of refugees into Iran, and made it possible for some
refugees to return home.
On the other hand, the version of Islam promoted by the Taliban was so
extreme that many Iranians unhappy with their Islamic Republic began to
thank their lucky star that most of their clerics were not on the same wavelength
as Mulla Omar and his team. At the same time, the emergence of the Taliban
provided the Iranians with an incentive to secure the victory of the reformist
candidate, Mohammad Khatami, in the 1997 Presidential elections. In Afghanistan,
the women and the youth were the most numerous victims of the Taliban policies.
In Iran, it was largely the youth and women's vote which secured Mr Khatami's
landslide election in 1997, and his re-election earlier this year.
The conservatives in Iran recently tried to score a point on the Taliban
debate, saying that in spite of all the bad press the Taliban had received,
they had been able to establish security in the country. A day later, President
Khatami described the comment as "very dangerous", saying that
Iran neither sought Taliban-style security, nor Taliban-style Islam, and
that it was Iran which would promote the Islamic model to the world.
Opium Caravans and Oil Pipelines
Ideological debates apart, the rule of the Taliban mainly affected Iran
on two fronts. Firstly, the rise in the drugs trade, which uses Iran as
one of its main routes for reaching the western markets. Over the past year,
the police in Iran had been seizing a daily average of 300 kilograms of
various drugs, mostly opium, across Iran. This is a fraction the drugs imported
into Iran, some of it consumed by Iranian addicts whose numbers are officially
put at two million. The drugs are imported by powerful gangs often better
equipped than the Iranian police, several thousand of whose members have
been killed in clashes with the smugglers.
Secondly, Iran had seen the Taliban as a tool of American plans to lay
down a pipeline through Afghanistan, linking the oil and gas fields of Central
Asia with the markets in Pakistan and beyond. The fact that the US government
backed the plans added a political aspect to the economic danger felt by
the Islamic Republic. Iran's efforts to build a much cheaper pipeline for
the Central Asian oil and gas exports have been defeated by the United States,
opposition to Iran expanding its influence in the Central Asia.
While the removal of the Taliban has been widely welcomed in Iran from
a political point of view, there are continued anxieties that United Front
for National Salvation, better known as the Northern Alliance, may not be
able to form a government of national unity. Should the victorious factions
repeat their performance after their first seizure of Kabul in 1992, Iran
is likely to witness another intensification of the wave of refugees fleeing
war and severe food shortages in Afghanistan. Increased instability and
poverty in Afghanistan is also certain to boost drugs production in the
country, and its export through Iran.
This bleak picture is moderated to some extent by the repeated assertions
of the United States and Britain that their operations in Afghanistan will
include long-term commitment to Afghanistan's peace and stability. The recognition
by the United States that Iran has an important role to play in this respect,
and the first hand-shake between an Iranian Foreign Minister and a United
States Secretary of State at the UN, are encouraging signs for future developments.
The task of re-building Afghanistan is a massive one and can only succeed
with the genuine international commitment. In July 1997, an Afghan official
gave a frightening catalogue of the destruction of the country's infrastructure
as the result of 18 years of fighting (Dr Changuiz Pahlevan, p339). The
* 8,000 hectares of irrigation networks destroyed
* 200,000 hectares of forests
* 2,000 schools
* 114 health centres
* 28 hospitals
* 1/3 of Afghanistan's villages, which were the home to 80% of the country's
* 500,000 homes, out of a total 2.3m, i.e. 20% of the entire housing
* 5.5m heads of cattle
* 2,400 kilometres of communications lines
* 600 kilometres of power lines
* 175 factories in Kabul alone
Four years on, the figures are only worse and Afghanistan's only productive
factories are those where aid agencies produce artificial limbs, crutches
and wheelchairs (Ahmad Rashid, p207). 7.5 million people, nearly a third
of Afghanistan's population, are estimated to be in need of food aid this
A Persian proverb says, "A hungry stomach has no faith." The
same could apply to a destitute "government of national unity"
and its ability to introduce peace and democracy. Unless the people of Afghanistan
can enjoy a decent standard of living, it is very unlikely that any collection
of forces, from whichever ethnic background, can form what can be reasonably
described as an administration, let alone a government. One estimate says
"it will take at least ten to 15 years before there will be a functioning
central authority capable of doing the minimum of the administration needed
for the development of the country." (Rashid, p 208)
The enormous costs of such an operation immediately raise the question
of the sources of funding. This in turn seems to have immediately raised
the subject of the oil and gas pipeline which was planned in the mid-1990s
by the American Company, Unocal, but had to be dropped after Osama bin Laden's
group attacked US embassies in Africa and had their bases in Afghanistan
attacked by American missiles. The decision to drop the project also had
a lot to with widespread protests in the United States against the Taliban's
treatment of Afghan women. Curiously, very little is being heard from Afghan
women now that the country's fate is being decided.
There are already reports that American oil companies are looking at
the presence of American forces in Afghanistan as an opportunity to develop
their oil and gas interests in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The arrival
in Afghanistan of contingents of troops from other western countries will
also be seen by many in the region as mainly motivated by being close to
the world's last known sources of energy, rather than by the desire to promote
the cause of civil society in Afghanistan.
Should this suspicion materialise, the future of Afghanistan is unlikely
to be brighter than that of other countries who have relied mainly on oil
revenues, especially as in the case of Afghanistan it will be much smaller
revenues from oil transit, rather than export, that will be available. These
cannot be anywhere near what the country needs for its reconstruction, but
will be perfectly adequate for any alliance of armed groups who can guarantee
safe passage of oil and gas. Such an alliance, however, will itself become
the target of attacks from other groups in the country who have not had
a share of the pie. This will ensure continued internal warfare in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, if Central Asian oil and gas is exploited in competition
with the resources in the Persian Gulf region, it could have a damaging
impact on the economies of Iran and the Arab oil exporters, leading to economic
and political difficulties in those countries and increased tension in the
region. This complex situation calls for truly international cooperation
in the use of the region's energy resources for the benefit of all producers
and all consumers.
Profits, Justice and Reason
One test of the US and British governments' stated commitments to ensuring
peace and prosperity in Afghanistan will lie in ensuring that the profits
of individual oil companies, or individual governments in the region, are
not given priority over the common interests of the people of the region
- and beyond. Such attention to the interests of the people would necessitate
a voice for the people in the decision making process - a feature which
is absent from the political lives of most of the societies concerned.
In the past, Western governments have not demonstrated a great degree
of interest in seeing the democratic process in operation in countries where
they have major economic interests. This attitude may change now that political
violence stemming from one society can easily travel to another corner of
the globe. The dismantling of the Taliban and al-Qaida network may put an
end to political violence being exported from Afghanistan, but it is possible
that similar actions will then be taken by disaffected groups of people
In assessing the efficacy of the military campaign in Afghanistan, one
will be justified in quoting Bertrand Russell's comment on the Bolshevik
Revolution, when he said he was not sure firstly if the Revolution was going
to succeed, and secondly that if it did, it would have been worth the price.
The military operation has already succeeded in effectively ending the Taliban
rule. It may even succeed in arresting Mr bin Laden and his associates and
bringing them to justice. But it is not clear if the end result will have
been worth the effort.
Firstly, the campaign is estimated to be costing between $500 million
and $1 billion a month. Many will argue that the use of similar sums for
Afghanistan's development after the Soviet withdrawal may well have spared
the country the status of a safe haven for promoters of political violence,
drug traffickers and smugglers.
Secondly, the use of massive violence by two of the world's most powerful
states against illusive villains based in the poorest nation in the world,
rather than pursuing international legal channels will in the eyes of many
people amount to consecration of violence. The longer the campaign lasts,
and it has already lasted far too long, the greater the damage to the legitimacy
of bodies such as the United Nations and the International Court of Justice,
which many smaller nations of the world regard as the only guardians of
their international interests.
Thirdly, the passion with which President Bush and Prime Minister Balir
organised the warfare indicated a state of mind that is usually associated
with us in the Orient, who are supposed to be guided more by emotions than
by reason. Those who doubt the rationality of war being used as a means
of establishing peace will be worried by the damage that such displays of
emotion, including the semi-religious language, could do to the cause of
rationality a concept which has become very popular in Iranian political
discourse in recent years, so much so that the Persian word for it, Kheradvarzi,
is now part of the common vocabulary.
If the Western nations, whose rational approach to problem solving has
been admired by us in the East for so long, were to continue taking actions
which would appear irrational, it is quite possible that the newly found
love for rationality would also disappear in the East. Were this to happen,
the Persian word kheradvarzi could soon give way to a pun. In the
Persian script, where the vowels are not written down, kheradvarzi or
rationality can easily be read as khar-e door-zi, or a donkey that
lives far away.
Hossein Shahidi is a student at St Antony's College, Oxford University,
where this paper was first presented at a seminar on 19 November 2001. He
has worked in the BBC's Persian and Arabic Services, and its News and Training
1. Dr Changuiz Palhlavan, Asr-e Mojaheddin va Baramadn-e Taliban,
(Afghanistan: The Era of the Mujaheddin and the Rise of Taliban). For more
details on the book, please see here.
2. Ahmad Rashid, Taliban, the Story of the Afghan Warlords, London,