Realpolitik in Southwest Asia

Mountain peoples bordering Iran on the west and the east - the Kurds and the Afghan tribes - today defy diplomatic efforts to bring stability to Southwest Asia. Although the situations in northern Iraq and Afghanistan differ, their similarities help explain why neither the United Nations, the United States, nor regional powers have been able to bring peace to the area.

In the region from eastern Turkey to Kashmir, modern boundaries were superimposed on often nomadic tribal patterns, leaving peoples spread across several states. Kurds reside in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. Afghanistan borders Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan and contains peoples with ethnic links to each neighbor. The links across what tribes consider artificial borders provide ample opportunities for smuggling. "Informal border trade" becomes a way of life, and control of lucrative routes can be a major cause of conflict.

Each group relives dreams of past glories. Kurds fantasize about Saladin who routed the Crusaders. Afghanistan's Uzbeks revere Tamerlane who ruled a Central Asian empire in the 14th and 15th centuries. Such thoughts further dilute loyalties to any modern state.

The multiple ethnic links and trade routes that cross each region have made these areas inescapable pawns in the games of nations. The British wrested control of northern Iraq from the Ottomans after World War I, and Afghanistan has been throughout history a center of international intrigue. Iran and Iraq, as well as Turkey and Western powers, are still involved in the struggle for northern Iraq. Pakistan, Iran, and the new states of Central Asia continue a close interest in Afghanistan. Oil discoveries in Turkmenistan have made the Afghan region a natural route for a new pipeline.

Efforts to bring peace are frustrated by opportunism and shifting loyalties, as the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani's recent appeal for help to Saddam Hussein demonstrated. Outflanking his Kurdish rival, Jalal Talabani, was more important to Mr. Barzani than holding the Iraqi leader at bay. In Afghanistan, Abdul Rashid Dostum, now dominant in the north, was the most important of the pro-Soviet guerrilla leaders during the Soviet-Afghan war. Now he may be the ally of those in Pakistan fearful of the Taliban - a group so extreme that its interpretation of Islamic law is condemned as radical even by Iran.

Long-range effects of manipulation in these regions are often unanticipated. It should not be surprising that Barzani remembered what he considered broken US promises of the past when he risked the wrath of Washington by his brief embrace of Baghdad. US policy sought to use Iraqi Kurds in October 1973 to keep Baghdad from entering the war against Israel. When that crisis passed, their support was dropped and the Kurds were left to make their own deal with Saddam. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the US exploited Islamic fervor in Afghanistan to create resistance to the Soviet presence. Veterans of that struggle have reappeared in Bosnia, the US, and elsewhere as trained fighters and sophisticated terrorists.

Washington has genuine interests in seeking stability in the region: to blunt any spread of Iranian influence, either to the West or the East; to continue to contain Saddam; and to see an end to the civil wars in Afghanistan. But in both Iraq and Afghanistan, US diplomacy is at the mercy of mountain people who have been manipulated by outside powers and have in turn manipulated others for centuries. Their loyalties are uncertain and they have dreams of their own. Their wily ways pose a major challenge to any diplomatic effort in the region.

*David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.

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