Israel and the US should consider whether a fresh approach to Afghanistan could provide them with strategic advantages in the region, a new report published by Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies recommends.

The report comes in the wake of calls by former US under secretary of defense for policy Michèle Flournoy for the two countries to strengthen their links with Afghan civilian leaders and the country’s nascent civil society.

Report co-author Gilead Sher, a senior INSS research associate and former Prime Minister’s Office chief of staff, said that he and his colleague, new media expert Orit Perlov, examined Afghanistan’s civil society to reveal where Israel and the US could forge future alliances to counter the Iranian threat.

Considering strategies to engage regional actors in Afghanistan to counter Iran’s influence in the region is highly important, Sher said because Tehran has openly threatened to eliminate Israel with the help of its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas.

That Iran has considerable influence over its former Taliban-dominated eastern neighbor is unsurprising since the two countries share a border as well as historic, religious, cultural and linguistic ties.

Since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001, Iran has invested heavily in Afghanistan’s infrastructure, particularly in the country’s western provinces, providing almost $1 billion in aid. Now, as the US and NATO forces prepare to withdraw their troops beginning in 2014, Tehran is ramping up its efforts to exert leverage over Afghanistan.

According to Ahmad Khalid Majidyar, a senior research associate in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Tehran continues to use Afghanistan as a proxy battlefield against the US, although Washington has tried to seek Iran’s help to stabilize Afghanistan.

Majidyar added that over the past decade, Iran has provided the Taliban with “measured” financial, training and arms assistance, both to project power and to deter the US from considering a military strike against Tehran’s nuclear installations.

However, Iran does not want a return of the extremist Sunni Taliban movement, which is ideologically and politically opposed to Shi’a Iran and is aligned with Tehran’s regional competitors Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, Majidyar said.

“By aiding the insurgents in Afghanistan, Tehran wants to send a message to Washington that it could undermine its efforts to stabilize Afghanistan if it is threatened militarily over its nuclear issue,” he added.

As well as developing Afghanistan’s infrastructure, Iran has made serious attempts to make inroads via “soft power” methods, including bribing Afghan politicians to impact policies in favor of Iran, assisting and organizing Shi’a groups and funding pro- Iran charities like the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee, Majidyar noted.

“Iran has also invested considerable amounts in pro-Iranian and anti-American print and broadcast media in Afghanistan,” he added.

A report this month by Reuters claimed that almost one third of Afghanistan’s media is backed by Iran either financially or through content provision.

In April, Afghanistan’s National Directorate for Security announced that several Afghan TV channels and a news agency received financial support from Tehran and that the Tamadon and Noor TV channels had broadcast pro-regime propaganda.

National Directorate for Security spokesman Lotfullah Mashal also said that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard-affiliated Fars News and the state-owned PressTV are both operating illegally in Afghanistan.

Iran’s increasing influence over Afghanistan’s media could have serious implications for the US and Israel, regional analysts say.

Steven Kleinman, a former US intelligence officer and director of strategic research at the Soufan Group security consultancy, warned that the US and Israel must take Tehran’s influence over Afghan media seriously.

“While most people think warfare is about physical weaponry, the end state of those devices in the physical realm has always been about influencing the cognitive realm: decision-making, morale and the population’s belief in a sovereign to protect them,” Kleinman said.

“The sage use of the media is simply a far more direct and cost-effective means of achieving through the airwaves what was once only achieved on the battlefield. And if there is one thing those inside the Islamic Revolution in Iran have learned, it is how to influence minds on a large scale,” he added.

Meanwhile, INSS’s Sher also called Tehran’s sponsorship of Afghan media “a source of serious concern.”

However, analysts stress that even though Iran has upped its efforts to influence Afghans’ hearts and minds, Tehran has so far failed to derail Kabul’s ties with the West.

Despite Tehran’s push to step up its influence by exporting ideology, there is considerable tension between the two countries.

Part of the tension stems from Afghanistan’s desire to be an independent country, while Iran has viewed the presence of NATO forces in its neighbor with great suspicion.

In March, Afghan leaders accused Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of “blatant interference in Afghan affairs” after he blamed US troops for “all the ills in Afghanistan” during a regional conference in Tajikistan.

Following that incident, Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s spokesman told Radio Free Europe that his country did not want to be a “battleground for a US-Iran conflict.”

Tehran-Kabul tensions also grew after Afghanistan signed a long-term strategic agreement with the US on May 1, signifying that Washington is prepared to continue supporting Afghanistan after troops withdraw, and raising Iran’s fears that the US would establish permanent military bases in the country.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said the agreement would “intensify insecurity and instability in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Afghanistan’s Tolo News last week that Iran wants to help train Afghan national security forces.

Salehi said that Kabul and Tehran are in the process of “drafting a strategic agreement” that would boost cooperation between the two countries after the withdrawal of foreign troops and that Iran has a demonstrable interest in Afghanistan’s future, Tolo News said.

Salehi referred to a May agreement Tehran signed with Kabul granting access to international waters via Iran’s Chabahar Port.

Meanwhile, Chabahar Port Authority CEO Shahbaz Yazdani told reporters this month that Iran wants to build a railway network connecting the port with Zahedan on the Iran-Afghan border.

Despite Iran’s best efforts, regional experts say Afghans still look to the West, and not to Iran, for guidance.

AEI’s Majidyar noted that the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan’s grand assembly of tribal leaders, the country’s parliament and civil society unanimously backed a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the United States.

Meanwhile, INSS’s Perlov said that after following around 160 Afghan blogs, key themes that emerged included Afghans’ keenness to explore relationships with the West, including via Israel.

Although Afghanistan mostly lacks an intellectual middle class, Perlov says her research uncovered a small but lively Internet and social networking culture that she said sheds light onto Afghans’ attitudes to key issues.

Afghan bloggers talk more about India and Pakistan than about Iran, and while Israel is not at the center of their attention, they see the Jewish state as a gateway to the West, she said.

“Afghans had no fear about talking to Israelis,” Perlov noted.

Afghan civil society may be weak, but it is growing – and activists are also using the media as a tool to influence.

The Kandahar-based nonprofit group Afghans for Civil Society, for example, has established the city’s first independent radio station, Afghan Azada (“Liberty”) Radio, which trains local journalists while offering news, Afghan history, music and information on other issues like health and education.

Meanwhile, aid from the US, the West and regional countries also reduces Iran’s influence over Afghanistan.

Perlov noted that one way for Israel to develop its ties to Afghanistan could be via India, whose soft power in Afghanistan is on the increase.

Mumbai – which has geographical as well as historical, cultural and commercial ties with Kabul – has already provided Afghanistan with over $2 billion in aid and, in October, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed agreements with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to help train Afghanistan’s security services as well as to provide aid with education, development and energy.

“Afghans want connections with the West,” Perlov said – an observation supported by AEI’s Majidyar, who warns that Iran is ultimately seeking to block those ties.

“The majority of Afghans still would rather be partners with the Western nations than with their immediate neighbors, Iran and Pakistan,” Majidyar said.

“But as foreign troops are withdrawing, Iran has doubled up its efforts to change that equation.” •

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