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Afghanistan: Neighbors Stand To Benefit From Joining Antiterrorist Coalition

  • Robert McMahon

As the case of Pakistan has demonstrated, immediate political and economic benefits are possible for those who join the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition. In New York this week, a panel of experts on the region discussed the possible consequences for Afghanistan's neighbors of the campaign that is now underway to rid Taliban-ruled areas of terrorist bases.

New York, 27 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Until the terrorist attacks of 11 September, the main collective undertaking of Afghanistan's neighbors was a largely unsuccessful forum for trying to solve the Afghan civil war.

Now these countries -- which include Pakistan, Iran and former Soviet Central Asian states -- are under pressure from the United States and European powers to take part in a much more high-stakes campaign aimed at striking against terrorism.

As a number of experts on the region point out, the possible benefits for these countries is great if they cooperate with the Washington-led effort. But such cooperation, they say, is by no means certain.

Nicholas Platt is president of the Asia Society and a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. At a roundtable sponsored by the Eurasia Group in New York this week, Platt noted how quickly Pakistan emerged as the key country in the initial U.S. diplomatic offensive.

Platt says a series of political and economic measures announced by Washington were the right initial signals to help bolster Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf. Despite some anti-U.S. demonstrations, Platt says Musharraf has the support of most Pakistanis at this time.

"The question in my mind is, 'Can this government last under these circumstances and under these pressures?' My answer to that, tentatively, today, is, 'Yes,' provided that we are sensitive about what we ask Pakistan to do."

Considered a main supplier of arms and manpower to the ruling Taliban, to which it also has close ethnic ties, Pakistan is also considered to have the best intelligence information on the location of Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden and his terrorism network have been identified as top suspects in the 11 September attacks in the U.S.

Musharraf recently announced a sharp change in policy -- including assistance to the U.S. military -- to help move against suspected terrorist bases in Afghanistan. His announcement was followed by U.S. moves to end sanctions against Pakistan for its nuclear-weapons program and to ease the way toward approving loans from the International Monetary Fund, which are seen as crucial for the heavily indebted country.

The situation with Afghanistan's western neighbor, Iran, is much different. The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran and still officially regards it as a sponsor of terrorism, based on its support for the Hezbollah group in southern Lebanon.

Recent high-level British-Iranian contacts are being seen as a possible avenue for the United States and Iran to resolve some of their differences over terrorism. But a statement issued yesterday from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, seemed to dispel any thought of a softening by Tehran. Khamenei called the American approach to dealing with terrorism arrogant and imperialistic.

But some experts on the region don't rule out cooperation. Giandomenico Picco is a senior associate with the Eurasia Group and a United Nations diplomat with long experience in the Middle East and Iran. He told the Eurasia Group roundtable that Iranian officials now have a chance to consider some of their common interests with Washington -- such as opposition to the Taliban, the stability of the oil market, and a desire for good relations with Saudi Arabia.

"It seems to me that this is a golden opportunity for a country like Iran to put on the table and to offer cooperation, mostly at the information level, [or] shall we say intelligence level. And this is perhaps the opportunity when Iran may also be brought into some more higher level of economic relationship with some countries."

Picco recently met with senior Iranian officials earlier. He says there is a strong desire among government leaders in Tehran for economic reforms and an acknowledgement of the important role the United States plays in the world economy.

But Picco also says a key consideration for U.S. officials is whether there are links between anti-Israeli groups Iran has supported in Lebanon and the terrorist network responsible for the U.S. attacks, which killed some 6,500 people. He said until now, he has not been aware of what he called terrorism fostered in a Sunni Muslim environment and terrorism that comes from a Shia environment.

"The question is whether the networks that are now being scrutinized do have some kind of connections with the Lebanese situation, the Lebanese groups. If they do, of course, then it would put in a different perspective also the position of Iran, and I don't know if they do."

For Afghanistan's neighbors to the north -- Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan -- their development for years to come could be shaped by how they engage the international community at this moment. That's the view of Anthony Richter, the director of the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute, a prominent non-governmental organization.

Richter told the Eurasia Group panel that based on their level of cooperation, these countries and others in Central Asia could see widespread U.S. assistance. This could include, he said, assistance in their own counter-terrorism campaigns, counter-narcotics efforts, border security and help with refugee overflows.

Richter, like other Central Asian experts, believes Washington is likely to downplay its concerns about human rights abuses in the region if these countries lend a hand in striking at bin Laden.

"If India and Pakistan have sanctions removed for their nuclear proliferation issues, then surely the types of issues that the U.S. government has had with the states of Central Asia are going to be dealt with in an understanding fashion in the short term."

Looking to the longer term, Richter raises the notion of Central Asia emerging from the terrorism battle with some sort of stability pact. He said some form of regional interstate structure, supported by the West, could help ensure proper governance, development and openness in the region to make sure it does not become a source of terrorism again.