Iranian scholar has advice for U.S. on Afghanistan

Iranian scholar Changiz Pahlavan has spent more than 30 years immersed in the minutiae of Afghanistan, as a researcher for UNESCO during the 1970s, a confidant of the country’s various warlords during the 1980s and ‘90s, and an expert on the huge Afghan refugee population in Iran.

In a recent interview with The Times, he said Iran could serve as a cultural bridge and more to Afghanistan, with which it shares a language and culture.

Other than a border, what connects Iran to Afghanistan?

For Iran, Afghanistan is a part of the same civilization. That is why when Afghan refugees are expelled from Iran, they shout at Iran, “They are inhumane!” Because it is their own home, their own culture.

What does Iran get about Afghanistan that Americans do not?

For America, Afghanistan is a battlefield to combat the terrorists.

But Americans do not understand the variety of cultures and the variety of ethnic elements in this country and the very important point of how all these differences could come together to be united in the form of one unified country.

Iran has the ability to understand the humanity, religion and psychology of Afghan people. The U.S. is not able to do the same thing and does not have the time to learn a lot about this very delicate and complicated culture.

What concrete steps can Iran take to help out in Afghanistan that it isn’t taking already?

Iran could help to transfer nonmilitary goods to Afghanistan to help the Afghan people. This transfer of foodstuff can be expanded into many other nonmilitary supplies.

Iran should also help America in the field of exchanging intelligence. Iran has some influence in certain parts of Afghanistan, but it should not be overestimated. Iran also has some connection to the Taliban, like the CIA does.

What is your advice to America?

The people of Afghanistan should get some benefits from the presence of the foreign military. They should be enjoying a better life. After World War II, the American troops came to Europe and were liked, but they were not liked in Vietnam and Iraq, because [the people there] did not get anything good out of it.

A group of Afghans who immigrated to the U.S. until very recently were giving advice to American administrations to favor certain parts of Afghanistan dominated by Pashtun tribal people. These advisors are loyal to neither the U.S. nor Afghanistan. They think Afghanistan should be ruled by Pashtun elements, whether royalists, republicans, Communists or the Taliban.

Pashtunism . . . is one of the main elements causing problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan, aside from Pakistani extremists. If you rely on these elements and this ideology, you lose the support of the majority of the people, who are not either Pashtuns or Pashtunists.

What should the U.S. do about Pakistan?

When I spoke many years ago of [Pakistani intelligence] involvement in Afghanistan, nobody was ready to accept it, not even the Iranian government. I saw Pakistani officers who were involved and pursued a scorched-earth policy by burning and ruining everything. It is because of the very complicated border areas between the two countries that Pakistani intelligence is highly involved.

Since its independence, there has been no central government in Pakistan. The unity of this country was guaranteed by the military. The present approach to strengthen democracy is very good.

Pakistan should restructure its intelligence activities in terms of personnel and ideology. They should have a secular constitution that does not allow certain regions to follow Islamic law while ignoring the rest of the country.

What does the North Atlantic Treaty Organization need to do?

There is no NATO in Afghanistan, in my opinion. The NATO presence is an umbrella for the U.S. NATO is not the real decision-maker in Afghanistan from a military point of view. They are not ready to go to the more dangerous areas in Afghanistan. The Australians, Canadians, Germans and French are just helping in a very general sense, not in the real battlefield.

What do you think of the plan to reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban?

There are no moderate Taliban. There are only genuine Taliban in Afghanistan.

Former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who wrote a letter to President Obama asking for help, is he a moderate?

He was one who benefited from U.S. financial help against communist rule. He is ready to collaborate with everybody. He has no legitimacy to rule in Afghanistan. Why should you invest in somebody who has no real followers?

The present government of Afghanistan also represents nobody except a small part of the Afghan bureaucracy. It’s not tribal or even Pashtun.

Afghanistan is in need of a new leadership with three characteristics: not to be the man of the United States, like President [Hamid] Karzai; not to be corrupt, by misusing international aid and dealing drugs; and to enjoy a nationwide support.

In the absence of such a personality, you should help Afghanistan be a united but decentralized country, a strong administration combined with tribes. It is a wrong approach of the U.S. to seek people who are loyal to Washington but who represent nobody.

What about Karzai?

His time is over, and has long been over. He is selling himself to the U.S. as someone unavoidable. But it’s not true. He can leave office and nothing will happen.

Mostaghim is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi contributed to this report.