Competition in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Pakistan
September 15, 2011
US competition with Iran has become the equivalent of a game of three-dimensional chess, but a game where each side can modify at least some of the rules with each move. It is also a game that has been going on for some three decades. It is clear that it is also a game that is unlikely to be ended by better dialog and mutual understanding, and that Iran’s version of “democracy” is unlikely to change the way it is played in the foreseeable future.
The Burke Chair at CSIS is preparing a detailed analysis of the history and character of this competition as part of a project supported by the Smith Richardson Foundation. This has led to the preparation of a new draft report entitled “COMPETITION IN AFGHANISTAN, CENTRAL ASIA, AND PAKISTAN” which is now available on the CSIS web site at:
Comments on this draft will be extremely helpful and should be sent to acordesman at gmail.com.
US-Iranian strategic competition is not primarily focused in South or Central Asia, although they are regions of interest for both Washington and Tehran. The segmented nature of the region also means that neither country has a holistic strategy for the region, and instead pursue an independent foreign policy to account for their specific interests within each country.
The region offers extraordinary complex challenges for both the US and Iran, with many ethnic divisions, historical tensions, and a shared pattern of economic underdevelopment with the potential for large-scale unrest. The expected withdrawal of US forces in 2014 will have a major impact on regional policies. In the post-US vacuum, it is expected that Iran will attempt to expand its influence, while the US deliberates on what extent of material commitment is appropriate for its post-Afghan regional interests. The US has many hard decisions to make, which will be driven by various issues including the war in Afghanistan, the growing instability in Pakistan, and whether the US should actively pursue strategic interest in Central Asia in the face of Russian and Chinese pressures and advantages.
Iran is a player in the equation. Many countries in the region are on its direct periphery, and the forces of instability, violence and criminality transcend regional borders. So far, in net terms, Iranian influence in the region has been positive, but growing US-Iranian competition can lead to negative competition predicated on emotion, rather than rational strategic interest. In Afghanistan, Iran has contributed to stabilization efforts in Western Afghanistan, but has also supported some attacks against US forces, and controls the main logistics route for the UN food effort. Iran is expanding its role in Afghanistan and will seek enhanced protection for Shiite minorities inside Afghanistan, and increased economic and political influence inside the country, not just in Western Afghanistan, but also with the government in Kabul.
Iran is pursuing a warmer relationship with Pakistan to augment efforts to tighten border security and prevent instability along its eastern flank. Such a thaw in relations faces many problems, including the Sunni-Shia schism between the two countries, the impact of Iranian-Saudi regional competition, trans-border criminal syndicates and suspected Pakistani sanctuaries for Baloch separatist groups complicit in terrorist violence inside Iran. Both countries, however, have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the US military presence in the region, and neither is keen on a long-term US presence in the region, opening a window for potential cooperation.
As for Central Asia, it is not clear that Iran is capable of being a dominant player in a region when China, Russia, and Turkey are major actors and each Central Asian state is playing as many outside and local powers off against each other as possible. A declining US need for the region as a logistical hub for military supplies to Afghanistan is likely to impact on the US relationship with each country, and will likely result in reduced US attention and commitment. However, extensive hydrocarbon deposits in some countries such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, are important considerations, and will likely be areas of increased competition.
In total, strategic competition is not the primary consideration for US and Iranian policy in this region. Both countries have specific evolving interests, that are likely to change in terms of hierarchy in each country’s grand strategic objectives in the post-Afghan era. The manner of US withdrawal from the region, and the nature of broader US-Iranian competition will likely affect the manner and scale of engagement, and determine whether the region becomes central or peripheral to broader trends of competition.