When we come to Iran's policies in Afghanistan, we mostly have a lot of smoke and mirrors. Seldom it is that an 'insider' account appears putting matters in proper perspective. Afghan leader Abdullah Abdullah's narrative, therefore, is of special interest. More so, as according to Abdullah, Iran turned a new page, so to speak, on its Afghan policies at a time when he used to be in the charmed circle of power brokers in Kabul, as the indispensable foreign minister of the New Afghanistan that George W. Bush was creating.
According to Abdullah, Iran began cultivating the government of Hamid Karzai sometime in 2003-2004. To quote Abdullah, “It started in a sort of transparent manner when I was the foreign minister. So it was during [Iranian] President [Mohammed] Khatami’s time, and President Khatami mentioned it to President Karzai, that ‘from my own office, I have a budget at my discretion. If you agree with it, I would like to give some money for your office.’ So it started that way. In the first year, it was twice or three times that this happened — each time, perhaps around $1 million.”
The timing is interesting. Bush had by then called Iran as one of the 'axis of evil' and had forgotten all about the splendid cooperation that Tehran extended for the success of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Mohammad Khatami was still in power in Tehran, albeit on his 'last legs', so to speak, politically bruised and bleeding from the daily ambushes and sniping from within the regime but he still harbored residual hopes that Washington would appreciate him as a man they could do business with. Iran-US standoff was intensifying, too.
As for Karzai, he was Bush's best pal with whom he conferred without fail every single week on phone from Oval Office. Karzai himself was basking in the sunshine of western attention as an acknowledged American puppet and was preparing for the (blatantly rigged) presidential election in 2004 auguring his first term as elected head of state. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about Mullah Omar by that time; Taliban had become, so it seemed, a part of history.
So, Tehran's decision to fund the American puppet in Kabul who was known to have a direct line to the Oval Office showed up a pragmatic policy at its best that almost bordered on cynicism. Tehran would have judged correctly by that time that the language of money spoke best within Karazi's power structure and a few million dollars were worth spending to win friends and influence people. Besides, it was an accepted norm of Afghan political life to accept money as a gesture of goodwill and no moral scruples were being violated.
An interesting thought: Did Tehran anticipate that Karazi would eventually fall out with Washington? Possibly so. Especially since the practice continued even after Khatami was replaced by Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. At any rate, Tehran would have seen the point in discouraging Karzai somehow from aligning in any way with the US policy of 'containment' of Iran.
What is absolutely delightful is that Karzai took American consent before accepting the 'bakshish' from Tehran. Just ponder over it a bit. Bush knew Tehran was cultivating Karzai but okayed it since he had the full confidence that Iranians were wasting their money! How I wish I were a fly on the wall when Karzai and Bush chatted up on the Iranian offer of money!
Karzai, of course, took abundant precaution. He split the Iranian money with his cabinet colleagues - in what proportion we don't know - so that if ever a controversy arose, the entire government would swim or drown with him. Smart thinking! Equally, Bush administration weighed the pros and cons of the Iranian move and seemed to have concluded that the Iranian policies toward Afghanistan could do no great harm and essentially, Iran didn't seek to 'de-stablilize' Afghanistan.
Let me quote the Washington Times report: “We [US] did not take the view that it is in the interest of Iran to destroy Afghanistan and to have massive turmoil and an ungoverned space of the Somalia variety,” said Elliot Abrams, who held various senior National Security Council positions during the George W. Bush administration. “We thought Iran had mixed interests in Afghanistan. And looking back, that seems to be right. It hasn’t acted to create a Somalia there, but it has acted at the very least to undermine American influence and make our presence there, as in Iraq, as difficult and as costly as possible,” Mr. Abrams said.
That is to say, Bush administration saw Iran as a 'stakeholder' in a stable Afghanistan although the American propaganda would have us believe just the opposite. Abdullah didn't reveal how much was his own share of the Iranian money was. What an irony! Abdullah today is America's darling, and he is defaming Karzai. Tomorrow it might be Karzai's turn to allege Abdullah began receiving American money sometime circa 2009. And, if that turns out to be true, that is, if Washington is indeed 'cultivating' Abdullah, can Tehran be far behind? Maybe, Karzai can throw light in a few years' time. To be sure, Americans are playing around dangerously with the Afghan politicians, pitting them against each other and having a good laugh.