The War for Afghanistan’s Soul : Iran, Saudis Seek Influence With Differing Visions of Islam

<i> Graham E. Fuller, a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council, is a senior political scientist with the RAND Corp. </i>

Afghans are already saying it: It was Islam that beat the Russians in Afghanistan. Now a new struggle is beginning, to see what kind of Islamic government will prevail in Afghanistan in the next decade.

We should make no mistake about it: Almost surely there will be an Islamic republic in Afghanistan, for Islam is what Afghanistan has been all about--at least in the eyes of the regional players.

The stunning capability of the moujahedeen to defeat the Red Army juggernaut has to rank among the most sensational accomplishments of any Islamic people over the past many decades. And although funds and arms from the West played a significant role, it was essentially Afghan will, sacrifice and fighting skill that provided the indispensable raw material for victory.

Afghans are fond of repeating that “Islam is a superpower.” This is not to say that an Islamic state is automatically a superpower. The implication is that Islam, as an immutable, sacred, God-derived moral force, will be able to exert power in its own way comparable to the power wielded by Washington and Moscow.


Islam’s victory will be complete when the Communist regime in Kabul has bitten the dust, as it surely will within the next few months. But Saudi Arabia and Iran, each with its own legacy of Islamic pioneering zeal, are carrying their Gulf rivalry into Afghanistan.

Saudi Arabia has impeccable historic credentials as a fundamentalist Islamic state. Twice in the course of the last two centuries the powerful Wahhabi tribal movement has burst forth from the fastness of central Arabia and visited a stark fundamentalist vision of Islam upon much of the rest of the peninsula, creating major security fears in the surrounding states. However much the modern Saudi state has moderated these instincts, Saudi Arabia still has a strong missionary zeal for the welfare of Muslims everywhere and for the spread of the Islamic cause abroad. Only Khomeini’s Iran has challenged Saudi preeminence as the protector of Islam worldwide.

In the rivalry for religious preeminence in the Muslim world, which largely follows the Sunni branch of Islam, the Saudis have one major advantage: They are a Sunni power, which bestows on them far more clout with other Sunnis than does the Shiite-tainted character of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision. In Afghanistan, the Saudis, possessing far greater wealth, and having good ties with religious parties in Pakistan, delivered vastly greater support to the moujahedeen parties than did the Iranians. Tehran primarily supported the Shiite minority in Afghanistan--less than 20% of the population--encouraging radical groups that often fought other Afghans rather than the Soviets.

The chances are good that Afghans will fiercely resist the influence of both external forces. Iranian support for the Afghan Shiite runs against the strong Sunni mainstream of Afghan Islam; the suggestions of “Wahhabism” that lurk behind Saudi largess are hardly any more attractive to Afghans either.


Press reports indicate that still other Islamic radicals--mostly Arab--have been increasing their presence in Afghanistan as the whiff of Islamic victory draws nigh. Indeed, this handful of anti-Western religious zealots seeks to draw the Afghan parties--all of them religious--into a basic anti-Western stance. But several factors weigh against a militant anti-Western stance in Afghanistan: the 10-year legacy of Western money and arms for Afghanistan’s jihad, or holy war; the anti-communist nature of the struggle, and the absence of any history of Western domination of Afghanistan even remotely comparable to the Iranian experience.

Thus a new phase begins for Afghanistan in which regional players will seek new areas of influence. Afghanistan itself will wield new-found clout stemming from its extraordinary victory. Iraq will get involved, if only to check Iran’s bid for influence. Pakistan will have the greatest interests of all in future Afghanistan, but already the 40-year legacy of Afghan-Pakistani hostility has been transformed by grateful Afghan recognition of Pakistan’s bold and consistent commitment to the moujahedeen cause. Even Palestinians are coming to Afghanistan to discover the secret of Afghan success.

There are some losers, too: India, the long-time friend of the Afghans in the past, forfeited all influence by its sympathy for the Soviet position during the war. For the Soviets, it will be a time of anxious concern that the new Islamic Afghanistan does not entertain notions of carrying the jihad north to their Islamic brethren in Soviet Central Asia. The Russians are already showing signs of increased sensitivity to the power of Islam, and they are beginning to realize that they can only seek coexistence with--and not ideological victory over--Islamic forces in the region.

We in the West can only hope that this newly unfurled Islamic banner of victory in Afghanistan will demonstrate that Islam triumphant does not automatically carry with it the despotism and virulent anti-Westernism characteristic of Iran’s own tortured historical experience.