A Big Tent Meeting on Afghanistan
by Charles Lemos, Thu Mar 05, 2009 at 04:53:32 PM EST
"We presented the idea of what is being called a big-tent meeting, with all the parties who have a stake and an interest in Afghanistan," she said at a news conference here after a meeting of NATO foreign ministers. "If we move forward with such a meeting, it is expected that Iran would be invited, as a neighbor of Afghanistan."
According to the Secretary of State, the United States has asked the Netherlands to act as host for the Afghanistan conference, which would take place at the end of March and would be chaired by the United Nations. A regional conference on Afghanistan is long over due and including the Iranians is a smart move. While the differences between Tehran and Washington on a whole host of issues is vast and deep, Afghanistan presents an opportunity for confidence building on both sides given that a stable and peaceful Afghanistan is in the interest of both Iran and the United States.
Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Iran's relations with Afghanistan have improved dramatically. Iran has actively patrolled the border and undertaken a variety of development projects in the border province of Herat. Iran also plays a major role in the fight against drug trafficking which feeds and arms both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Iran also has a strategic interest in protecting the small Shi'ite population, approximately 12% of the population, in Afghanistan from a return of the Sunni Wahhibist Taliban that persecuted Afghan Shi'ite community. Overall, Afghanistan's relations with Iran during the past six years have been cordial, even exceptional according to Sultan Ahmad Baheen, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The other aspect of a 'big-tent' meeting on Afghanistan is the recognition by the Obama Administration that Afghanistan, and in truth the co-joined Pakistani problem, is that the solutions will require an all hands on deck approach. The United States, simply cannot tackle Afghanistan, much less Pakistan, on its own. Indeed, Secretary Clinton noted that the international community must view Afghanistan and Pakistan as a "single strategic concern." She described the border region between the two countries as the "nerve center" for the 9/11 attacks; the bombings in Madrid and London; the assassination of the former Pakistani leader, Benazir Bhutto; and the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Countering that threat, she said, will demand a regional approach and a more integrated civilian and military strategy. It will also require the involvement of all of Afghanistan's neighbors, she said, including Iran. And if out of this process the United States and the Iranians learn to talk to each other, that's not a bad outcome either.