Democracy Is Not a Postcard

By Schmidle, Nicholas | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Democracy Is Not a Postcard


Schmidle, Nicholas, The Virginia Quarterly Review


IRANIAN INFLUENCE IN WESTERN AFGHANISTAN

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I TOOK THE ELEVATOR UP. Afghanistan doesn't have many elevators-after years of war with the Soviet Union followed by more than a decade of Taliban control, most of the country remains in shambles, leading one American pilot during the invasion to lament that Afghanistan was "not a target-rich environment"-but the Herat Trade Center is a flashy, modern structure with eight stories of blue, shimmering, mirrored glass. Qulam Qader Akbar, head of the Herat Chamber of Commerce, wore a pinstriped suit and had slicked-back hair. The window in his second-floor office frames Herat's skyline of palaces and minarets.

From here, it's obvious: Herat, Afghanistan's second-largest city, is booming. Pastel-colored mansions-narco-palaces courtesy of the poppy tradeshoot up on every block, featuring turrets and multi-tiered balconies in a decorating style somewhere between a lollypop and a wedding cake. Women in burqas browse through piles of bras and sacks of spices in the crowded streets and alleys of the bazaar. At a traffic circle, orderly cars inch around a tower honoring those who died fighting the Soviets during the 1980s. An inscription in Dari at the top reads, JIHAD: VICTORY, INDEPENDENCE, DEVELOPMENT. While many jihadis live in caves and dwell on victory and independence, the people of Herat are busy enjoying the benefits of development.

Akbar leaned back in his leather chair and explained why. "Location, location, location," he said. Herat shares a border with Iran, and more goods already pass through Islam Qala, the primary crossing point, than through any other border station in Afghanistan. In past centuries, traders flocked to swap camels; now they come to buy Land Cruisers. But it's not just proximity that has led to Herat's prosperity; the Iranian government is actively investing in the province's infrastructure. A recently completed road from Herat to Islam Qala was built by an Iranian construction company; there are also plans to extend the Iranian railway to Herat-a project that would ultimately link the city to markets in Europe. And while Kabul hums with the sound of generators day and night, electricity flows twenty-four hours a day in Herat thanks to its energy-rich neighbors, Iran and Turkmenistan. The Iranian power grid runs straight across the border and plugs directly into Herat's industrial park. Reliable energy and cheap transportation, combined with an educated citizenry and the fall of the Taliban, have fueled an economic boom. Akbar told me that there were just one or two companies based in Herat during the Taliban era. Today, there are more than 250.

Until recently, Washington and Tehran had struck something like a cordial, working relationship in Herat. The Iranians were grateful that the Taliban, with whom they almost went to war, had been defeated, and many of the antiTaliban warlords in the Northern Alliance supported by the Americans were already being bankrolled by the Iranian government. The first few years of the American venture in Afghanistan gave the impression that Iran and the United States might be able to play nice. Strange friendships develop in wartime.

But last spring, a series of events gave reason to reconsider. In April, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, told the Iranians that he knew they were shipping weapons to the Taliban in southern Afghanistanand to cut it out. This may have been dismissed as just another sound bite of anti-Iranian rhetoric from Washington, but a couple of months later, Colonel Rahmatullah Safi, the commander of the Afghan Border Police, lodged similar claims. "The weapons which the enemies use these days such as Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, hand grenades, explosivesthey are not coming from the sky, these definitely are coming from across the border," he told the BBC.

A few weeks later, primed to respond to American threats and provocations, Iran revealed an unconventional weapon in its arsenal: refugees. …

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