Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt, so I won't argue that David Rohde has either a political agenda or his head up his ass. I'll stick with the facts, which show that his article in the other day's New York Times' Iran Is Seeking More Influence in Afghanistan reveals little more than his breathtaking obliviousness.
Rohde's thesis dovetails with a Republican talking point: Iran views regional instability as a good thing - an opportunity to push its religious agenda. "[S]ince the United States and its allies ousted the Taliban in 2001, Iran has taken advantage of the central government's weakness," as "it exploits new opportunities to spread its influence and ideas farther across the Middle East" ( i.e. with Hezbollah in Lebanon and in post-Saddam Iraq). It's a plausible notion until you acknowledge the elephant in the room - the drug trade across the Afghan border into Iran.
To make his case, Rohde relies heavily on ethnic innuendos. He finds it notable that new mosque was built in a "style [that] is unmistakably Iranian" but fails to mention that it was situated in the Tajik region of Afghanistan, where the majority of locals are ethnically Persian and speak Persian, the lingua franca of Afghanistan. He deemed it suspicious that a Shiite school had "a religious magazine printed in Iran [that] assailed the United States for supporting Israel's attacks on Lebanon" even though most of the European secular press assailed the U.S. for the same reason. Or this bombshell: "In interviews, three Shiite officials said new religious schools were being built with Iranian money. They also said that more Afghans were celebrating formerly obscure Shiite religious holidays." Whoa. Despite these untoward intrusions, "Afghan government officials, desperate for aid, say they have decided to trust Iran's intentions. 'History may prove that overly optimistic,' said Jawed Ludin, President Karzai's chief of staff."
"Discerning Iranian motives is notoriously difficult," writes Rohde. Yeah, it's difficult if you ignore the facts.
Iran has one overriding motivation apparent to anyone with a cursory knowledge of the situation: Iran wants the government of Afghanistan to cooperate in the fight against opium drug trafficking. Given that the Afghan drug trade is devastating Iran's youth the way World War I devastated France, it's not difficult to discern that Rohde was dwelling matters that were all but superfluous.
Look at the numbers. The majority of Afghanistan's GDP (52%) comes from illegal opium (70% of global production), of which most (60%) is exported through Iran, a country suffering with the world's highest incidence of heroin addiction ( 2.8% of the population) and - thanks to shared needles - a skyrocketing AIDS epidemic (25% of hard core opium users). In very round numbers, Iran has about 4 million opium users.
Iran's efforts in the front-line battle against narco terrorism are being indirectly thwarted by the governments of Afghanistan and the United States, who choose to look the other way. If you doubt Iran's commitment, here's what Condi Rice's own State Department reported:
"There is overwhelming evidence of Iran's strong commitment to keep drugs leaving Afghanistan from reaching its citizens. As Iran strives to achieve this goal, it also prevents drugs from reaching markets in the West. More than 3,400 Iranian law enforcement personnel have died in clashes with heavily armed drug traffickers over the last two decades, and Iran reports that another 48 died in 2004. Iran spends a significant amount on drug-related expenses, including interdiction efforts and treatment/prevention education. Estimates range from $250-$300 million to as much as $800 million each year, depending on whether treatment and other social costs are included. Traffickers from Afghanistan continue to cause major disruption along Iran's eastern border, but Iranian security forces have had excellent seizure results for the last two years by concentrating their interdiction efforts in the eastern provinces."
In the first nine months of 2006, Iran's drug police made 314,268 arrests. The 35 metric tons of opium, seized by Iran in 2004 accounted for 83% of all opium seizures in the world. (World Drug Report 2006, p. 64, UN Office on Drugs and Crime)
By ignoring the context of the Iran's drug war, Rohde misled his readers in large and subtle ways. A few examples:
Rohde made a big deal out of Iran's expenditure of $200 million in investments and aid in Afghanistan. He quotes an American envoy, who said that Iran's initial post-Taliban pledge in aid and loans - $560 million over five years - was a 'startling' amount for a nonindustrialized nation. But those amounts are dwarfed by the amount Iran spent on its own side of the border - $900 million - to build trenches, drug outposts and watch towers.
How about this little passage from those not-for-attribution-and-after-we've-lied-to-you-before sources, which seem lifted from the Judy Miller playbook:
"And as the dispute over Iran's nuclear program has escalated [leading the United Nations Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran on Dec. 23], Iranian intelligence activity has increased across Afghanistan, American and Afghan officials say. This has included not just surveillance and information collection but the recruitment of a network of pro-Iranian operatives who could attack American targets in Afghanistan. [On Dec. 20 in London, British officials charged the interpreter for NATO's commanding general in Afghanistan with passing secrets to Iran.]"
First, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, admonished the Afghans last November for not providing Iran and the international community with intelligence on drug trafficking.
Second, as accusers , the U.S. and Britain have credibility problems. They persist in their unsubstantiated and highly implausible claim that Iran was harboring Al Qaida refugees from Afghanistan. (Al Qaida members believe Iran's Shia branch to be more heretical that George Bush, which is why Al Qaida has always opposed the Shia government in Iraq.) Remember the Brits' "uranium from Africa" intelligence underpinned much of the case for Iraq's WMD? The Brits have never backed down from that one.
So why have the Afghan government and the U.S. military consistently turned a blind eye to the local drug trade? Rohde's colleague at the Times , James Risen, provided the two-word answer: "Donald Rumsfeld." As Risen wrote in his book, State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, Rumsfeld did not care about the thriving drug trade, and even after Bush ordered the Pentagon in late 2004 to destroy Afghanistan's poppy crop, Rumsfeld made sure the request was never carried out. More presently:
"The Pentagon...has resisted entreaties from U.S. anti-narcotics officials to play an aggressive role in the faltering campaign to curb the country's opium trade. Military units in Afghanistan largely overlook drug bazaars, rebuff some requests to take U.S. drug agents on raids and do little to counter the organized crime syndicates shipping the drug to Europe, Asia and, increasingly, the United States, according to officials and documents." Los Angeles Times, December 5, 2006.
Meanwhile, the consequences hit close to home:
"Heroin-related deaths in Los Angeles County soared from 137 in 2002 to 282 in 2004 before dropping to 239 in 2005, still a jump of nearly 75 percent in three years, a period when other factors contributing to overdose deaths remained unchanged, experts said. The jump in deaths was especially prevalent among users older than 40, who lack the resilience to recover from an overdose of unexpectedly strong heroin, according to a study by the county's Office of Health Assessment and Epidemiology.
"'The rise of heroin from Afghanistan is our biggest rising threat in the fight against narcotics,' said Orange County sheriff's spokesman Jim Amormino. 'We are seeing more seizures and more overdoses.' Los Angeles Times December 26, 2006.
To sum up, if Rohde were going to report accurately about Iran's desire to influence Afghanistan, he would need to touch on the failure of American policy and to acknowledge that Iran's intentions may be honorable.
But then the timing would have been awkward. His article was published just after The White House censored passages of a Times op-ed piece advocating better relations with Iran, and just after The White House rejected the recommendation of the Iraq Study Group to start talking to Iran, and just after The White House argued that the U.N. sanctions against Iran's nuclear development are insufficient, and just as The White House is pressuring India and Pakistan to reject a pipeline project that would import Iranian gas (most experts think the competing pipeline project - through Afghanistan - is too risky).
Again, everybody deserves the benefit of the doubt. All I know for sure is that James Rohde is oblivious. I find it tougher to be so charitable toward his editors.