Neighbors / How Much Does It Cost to Buy Afghanistan?

Under different circumstances, Iran could have been perceived as a natural and important American ally in the war in Afghanistan.

Umar Daudzai is a rich man, a very rich man even. In his position as chief of staff to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, he has become used to getting sacks of cash, sometimes containing 1 million euros or even more, that reach him directly from Iran.

Daudzai was, and still is, also responsible for advising the president on how to distribute American financial aid and donations from European countries and financial bodies. The revelation this month in The New York Times that Daudzai received direct bribes from Tehran did indeed create something of a stir - but not in Afghanistan, where the president confirmed that Iran sent cash to the Afghan government, and said Iran is a close friend that values Afghanistan's stability no less than the United States does.

Hamid Karzai, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad August 2010 (AP)

Surprisingly, it is the Iranian parliament that is now demanding an explanation. The legislature is asking Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to explain where the money sent to Afghanistan came from, what it was intended for and how much money was involved. But the Iranian parliament also knows that Iranian assistance to Afghanistan is not an exciting news item and that the source of the money is not necessarily the official state budget, but funds controlled independently by the Revolutionary Guards that are meant, among other things, to pay terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah or those in countries including Sudan, Yemen and some of the African states.

Iran's official aid - part of the restoration program for Afghanistan, to which the United States and European countries also contribute - amounts to nearly $700 million. It is aimed at giving Iran spheres of influence around the country, not directed at the Shi'ite regions in particular.

Incidentally, the personal payments that Iran sent to Daudzai offer proof that Iran does not exporting the Shi'ite revolution to Afghanistan. When it has political or diplomatic interests, Iran does not look too hard at the blood, race or religious origins of its partners.

Glittering biography

Daudzai, a 53-year-old ethnic Pashtun, could have served as a role model for the kind of leadership that the U.S. would like to see in Afghanistan.

As a former member of the Islamic Party set up by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the most prominent warlords fighting the Soviet occupation (who later cooperated with Al-Qaida ), Daudzai took part in the war against the Soviet Union; he speaks fluent English, has a master's degree from Oxford University and worked for international organizations to help the children of Afghanistan. He worked on a United Nations development plan in Pakistan, and was asked to serve as Karzai's chief of staff once the interim government was established.

But a glittering biography can be misleading. Daudzai was appointed Afghan ambassador to Tehran in 2007 and put extensive effort into developing close ties with the Iranian regime, the Revolutionary Guards and the heads of the Iranian intelligence agencies. On his return to Kabul, he naturally became Iran's man in the Karzai regime and the one who shaped Afghanistan's tough positions against U.S. interests.

Washington should not be surprised at the Iranian intervention. After all, it did not begin during Karzai's term of office. During the war against the Soviet Union, it was Iran - along with Saudi Arabia and Osama bin Laden - that funded some of the mujahideen when the United States could not give them direct aid because of a congressional ban.

When the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan, Tehran decided to help the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik, against the Taliban and to provide it with funding and arms as a counterweight to the assistance its rivals got from Saudi Arabia. When the United States launched its war on Afghanistan after the September 1, 2001, terror attack, turned out that Iran had backed the right horse.

Iran not only helped in the war against the Taliban but also absorbed Afghani refugees, gave American rescue planes permission to pass through its airspace if necessary to save the lives of American soldiers, and continued to act against Al-Qaida militants. Under different circumstances, Iran could have been perceived then, and now, as a natural and important American ally in the war in Afghanistan.

It is sufficient to notice how Iran refuses to allow terrorists to hide out along its border with Afghanistan - despite not getting American aid to do so, as Pakistan does - in order to understand the extent to which Tehran is cutting down on Washington's of worries in western Afghanistan.

For its part, Afghanistan is not doing anything out of the ordinary compared with what other countries in its position have done. When American officials talk of an initial withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of 2011 and a final pullout about three years later - without tying this to achievements - Afghan leaders prepare for the future. Afghanistan is in close touch with Saudi Arabia - which is trying, unsuccessfully so far, to get the government and the Taliban to reconcile - and is also keeping up strong ties with Tehran. Those concerned about the possibility that Karzai's corrupt regime will collapse after the American pullout and that the Taliban will regain control must closely examine which side Saudi Arabia is favoring. In its competition with Iran - not just in Afghanistan, but also in Lebanon, Iraq and among the Palestinian factions - Saudi Arabia is likely to prefer a Taliban-led regime to one led by any other group.

On the fringes of this strategic struggle, it is also worth noting that, economic sanctions notwithstanding, Iran holds a vital card: its involvement in American interests in central Asia. No less important, the countries of central Asia consider Iran to be an indispensable supporter.