Behind the Lines: Afghani hearts and minds
Developing Afghanistan’s civil society could counter Iran’s growing influence in the region, experts say.
A MAN buys an ‘Ensaf’ newspaper at a kiosk in Kabu Photo: REUTERS
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said the
agreement would “intensify insecurity and instability in
Meanwhile, Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, told
Afghanistan’s Tolo News last week that Iran wants to help train Afghan national
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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