Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who will seek the resumption of full military cooperation with the United States during a visit to Washington this week, says his country’s traditional rivalry with Iran for influence in Afghanistan has resumed.
President Bush highlighted that struggle when he identified Iran as part of an “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address and cited it for allowing Taliban and al Qaeda members to flee across its border. Iran has since promised greater efforts to catch the terrorists.
There have also been reports that Iran is backing factional leaders in western Afghanistan near its borders, undermining the efforts of interim leader Hamid Karzai to establish the authority of the central government.
“There are differences of opinion between Iran and us” over Afghanistan, Gen. Musharraf acknowledged in an interview early last week with George A. Nader, president of the Washington-based bimonthly Middle East Insight.
A transcript of the interview, which will appear in the journal’s March/April issue, was made available to The Washington Times.
Iran has traditionally competed with Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan, a competition that is liable to be enhanced by Tehran’s concern over growing U.S. influence in a neighboring country. Nevertheless, Iran insists it supports the Karzai government and pledged $500 million for reconstruction of Afghanistan at a conference in Tokyo late last month.
In another conciliatory gesture yesterday, Iran closed the Tehran office of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan warlord who opposes Afghanistan’s interim government.
The decision was announced by a midlevel official who spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity but did not provide further details.
For strategic reasons, Pakistan has long sought to ensure a friendly government in Afghanistan. Islamabad has itself pledged $100 million toward the rebuilding of its neighbor and hopes soon to begin repatriating some 2 million Afghan refugees.
In the interview, Gen. Musharraf said Iran and Pakistan share an “overall strategic objective in Afghanistan,” but the “modality of achieving that may be somewhat different.”
He also said that, despite the differences, he will continue meeting with Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.
On other matters, Gen. Musharraf said his country “is currently engaged in fighting Islamic extremism,” but that “our goal is not to Westernize. We have our own culture, which should follow the middle of the road.”
Gen. Musharraf, a military leader who took power in a 1999 coup, has also had to balance his quest for closer ties to the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks with strong Islamic fundamentalist currents in his overwhelmingly Muslim nation.
Topping his agenda in talks this week with Mr. Bush and top administration officials will be increased economic aid and security ties, including the resumption of full military cooperation suspended after Pakistan carried out nuclear tests four years ago.
Gen. Musharraf, in discussing his country’s nuclear arsenal, made clear he put national interests far above any pan-Islamic ideal. He rejected outright the idea that Pakistan’s nuclear program amounted to the world’s first “Islamic bomb.”
“I don’t know why our bomb is called an ‘Islamic bomb,’ since India’s bomb is not called the ‘Hindu bomb’ and Israel’s is not referred to as the ‘Jewish bomb.’ I really don’t understand this logic,” Gen. Musharraf said.
He said his nation’s nuclear capability is “too serious an issue to be termed an ‘Islamic bomb,’ as though we were going to use it anywhere to advance the Islamic world. That is not the case.”
Gen. Musharraf said his primary message in Washington would be that the recently improved ties be made “permanent.”
He said the image of the United States had suffered when it largely abandoned the region after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan a dozen years ago. “This past impression needs to be corrected,” he said.
Economic aid to Pakistan’s battered economy will also be high on the agenda, including greater access for Pakistani exports to the United States.