The Great Satan Courts the Axis of Evil

A survey conducted last year by the American Pew Research Center revealed that 88 percent of U.S. citizens don't know where Afghanistan is. This amazing statistic is not preventing U.S. President Barack Obama from transferring the American war from Iraq to Afghanistan, deploying approximately 17,000 additional soldiers there, raising more money for the war in that country and primarily, trying to enter into an alliance with Iran in order to stabilize Afghanistan. Yesterday, at the international conference in The Hague initiated by Washington to discuss Afghanistan, he also proposed setting up a coordinating team in which Iran would be a partner.

Afghanistan really is gradually getting out of control. The number of terror attacks there is already on the increase - and the month of April every year marks the beginning of the intensive season of attacks, when the snow melts and the terrorists can operate with relative ease. Additional private militias were formed in the past year, and when the cost of a fighter in their ranks is about $5 a day, the export of opium can finance private armies for every large drug dealer. The export of drugs, incidentally, increased by about 35 percent last year, and that is only according to the data on the drugs that were intercepted.

Iran is an essential partner in the war in Afghanistan. It has close ties with the Tajiks, the largest minority in the country, who speak a Persian dialect, it is very close to the Uzbeks, the second-largest minority. It also cultivates ties with the Hazars, the Shi'ites in Western Afghanistan, along the Iranian border. All these minorities despise the Taliban. Iran is also interested in preventing the drug trade from Afghanistan coming to Iran, and in helping stabilize the regime, to which it has to date contributed over $200 million.

According to UN statistics, Iran's war on drugs has cost it about $600 million and claimed the lives of about 3,700 members of its security forces. Iran is also afraid that instability in Afghanistan will cause the flight of hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees into the country. Afghan President Hamid Karzai considers Iran a much closer country than Pakistan, which is unable to prevent the passage of Taliban members from its territory to Afghanistan, and apparently Obama, although he has decided to help Pakistan with an additional $1.5 billion beyond what the administration has already given it, agrees with his view.

Iran is willing to cooperate with the U.S., but not without a price. After helping the administration of George W. Bush in the war in Afghanistan, and wielding its influence to advance the appointment of Karzai, it was dubbed a charter member of the "axis of evil" in return. This time Iran is being more cautious. In exchange for cooperation, it will demand a change in American policy toward it, beyond the Nowruz holiday greeting sent by Obama.

Iran, after all, has tremendous economic leverage in Afghanistan: It exports oil, construction materials and consumer goods to the country. When the Islamic Republic decided to send a substantial portion of its cement exports to Iraq, the prices in Afghanistan jumped precipitously, which caused civil unrest there.

In the meantime, the new administration's policy suffers from a certain confusion. The dispatch of 4,000 American soldiers to Afghanistan, which Obama announced last Friday, is no substitute for the establishment of an efficient Afghan army and police. The existing forces are tainted by corruption and are unable to deal with the private armies of the tribal warlords or the drug dealers, who are equipped with the latest technological devices. Obama's European partners are willing to give additional funds as civilian aid to Afghanistan, but not military forces. Italy, for example, which has a large force in Afghanistan, has announced that it will send only 250 additional soldiers, and even that only until the summer, in order to help conduct the presidential elections.

At the same time, Obama is trying to enlist Saudi Arabia to help influence Pakistan and the Sunni Pashtun majority in Afghanistan. He also announced that he may be willing to contemplate negotiations with the moderate Taliban factions. However, Saudi Arabia is Iran's rival not only in the Arab Middle East; it also competes with Iran over the sphere of influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran is afraid that the dialogue with the Taliban will come at its expense. Obama will have to decide very soon which of the two will be able to help more effectively in the war in Afghanistan, and mainly what the aims of the war are to be: stopping the Taliban or living with them in peace while giving up on the idea of a strong central government.

A sandwich for Gaza

The conference of the donor nations for the reconstruction of Gaza, which was convened by Egyptian President Mubarak early last month, is like a huge lottery, in which the winner and the size of the prize have been announced - but the coffers remain empty. Over $5 billion is registered on paper in the name of the Palestinian Authority, and the money is stuck at the gates of the Gaza crossings. As long as the crossings are closed, there is no way to bring in the materials and equipment needed for reconstruction; as long as Hamas does not release Gilad Shalit the crossings will not be opened; and as long as Hamas does not recognize Israel there will be no American aid.

Coming now to the aid of Gaza are the pupils of the Al-Marhia? elementary school in Qatar, who have prepared the longest sandwich in the world, 1,730 meters in length, and the largest pasta dish in the world, weighing 4,445 kilograms. In so doing the pupils entered the Guinness Book of Records.

The preparation of the sandwich and the pasta cost about $275,000, and after the tremendous achievement, the students promised to transfer some of the income from their sale of the dishes to the children of Gaza. On condition that the crossing is open.