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Dateline Afghanistan: Border Security for Iran

What is really at stake with an unsecured border between Iran and Afghanistan?

June 30, 2006

What is really at stake with an unsecured border between Iran and Afghanistan?

Imagine what would happen if the United States immediately redeployed something on the order of 35,000 of its troops in Iraq to Afghanistan, not just to the country's violent southern provinces, increasingly disrupted by a Taliban insurgency, but also to the border with Iran.

For the record, I don't believe we should have invaded Iraq with anything less than international backing and a fact-based plan for the immediate establishment of a stable state, taking full advantage of the Clinton Administration's experience in the Balkans.

There was every reason to expect that invading Iraq without such a plan could result in chaos — and turn Iran into the Middle East's top power broker overnight.

In fact, almost everything the Bush Administration has done in the Middle East strengthens Iran.

It's as if the United States were continuing the tacit cooperation with Iran begun when President Reagan sent arms to the country for funds subsequently passed on to Nicaragua's contras.

Consider this list. The Bush Administration fatally undermined Iran's reformist President Khatami — by ignoring him.

The United States removed the Taliban threat from Iran's eastern border. It removed the threat posed by Saddam from Iran's western border.

The United States has even started to turn Iran's neighbor, Azerbaijan, into a petro-state — which should indirectly benefit the 16 million poor ethnic Azeris in Iran.

Finally, U.S. recklessness in allowing violence to spread near the world's second-largest oil reserves has helped drive the price of oil to new heights, providing Iran's radical Islamic government with financial security and the means to buy what it wants. What it seems to want is a nuclear bomb.

U.S. military and political leaders are actively looking for opportunities to reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq, as sectarian battles eclipse the insurgency and even Iraq's friendly leaders speak out against alleged criminal U.S. military acts.

Whether or not the alleged actions turn out to be as craven as some of them sound, they are inflaming hatred against U.S. forces in Iraq — even before the anger about abuses at Abu Ghraib prison dies down.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, is in desperate need of the stabilizing force of U.S. boots on the ground. The recent riots in Afghanistan — after an army truck ran horribly out of control and killed someone in the capital city, Kabul — show that that country risks falling apart just like Iraq.

If the United States pulls out of Iraq without securing Afghanistan, we could actually leave two countries — Iraq and Afghanistan — in flames, and a third — Iran — ready to make mayhem in both at our expense.

This presents a grave danger to the United States. Dictators and terrorists around the world will tell themselves that, if the toughest pragmatists anyone has ever seen in the White House don't know how to ensure the country's national security, the United States must indeed be a paper tiger.

How does the United States avoid a triple witching hour — a nuclear Iran pulling the strings in a failing Iraq, while the Taliban turn every part of Afghanistan outside of the capital into a kind of Somalia with opium?

Perhaps we should send whatever troops we plan on withdrawing from Iraq this year not home but to Afghanistan.

Sending rotating troops to Afghanistan from Iraq would erase any political advantage that the Bush Administration might have derived from bringing them home, of course. But it may not be such a dumb idea.

First, 35,000 more U.S. troops in Afghanistan could make a vital difference to the NATO forces now fighting what looks like a full-scale war in the country's three unstable southern provinces. Just because those troops may not be in a position to stabilize Iraq doesn't mean Americans have to give up on Afghanistan.

But in one respect, the effect of those troops wouldn't be limited to Afghanistan. They would also have a powerful impact on Iran.

Suppose you live in a country with a great, long history like Iran's. But your kids — whether in big cities like Tehran or remote rural areas — are frustrated and bored. What would you fear more than anything?

Suppose further that 20% of the people in your country, just as in Iran, are from ethnic groups who are desperately poor. And suppose they live around the fringe of your country — coming not from Canada and Mexico, but places like Iraq, Baluchistan, Afghanistan and the Caucasus.

Given your long history, if you're a Persian in Iran, you may well consider yourself to be surrounded by hostile, primitive people.

In that situation, it seems what you would fear more than anything — is drugs. You would fear that all those desperately poor ethnic groups and those hostile people on the other side of your porous borders are going to sell drugs to your bored, frustrated kids.

Even a minority of 35,000 U.S. troops could lock down drug-smuggling across the Afghan-Iran border. And most remarkably of all, virtually no one in the world would complain about doing so.

Consider who has an interest in that border. The Europeans would be happy to see Americans beef up security on any Afghan border. The Russians and the Chinese would be happy for anything that keeps trouble-makers away from their borders.

Even India would be happy because border security in general points to less violence in its border state of Kashmir. All of these powers would be happy with U.S. forces limiting the possibility of jihadists sneaking into Afghanistan from Iran.

But it's the flow of contraband in the other direction that matters to Iran. From Iran's perspective, the benefit of a significant military force on its border with Afghanistan is the reduction of heroin flowing into the country.

How hard would it be to lock down the Afghan-Iran border?

It wouldn't be easy. But the simple truth is that we might not want to try very hard, even if our troops were in place. Not if Iran continued developing the capability to build a nuclear weapon that could threaten Europe, Israel or an Arab state.

In that case, it would be a very easy job. Quite simply, we could look the other way until Iran’s valiant and long-suffering citizens grew sick of the destructive consequences that Afghanistan’s heroin spigot brings upon their children and changed their government.