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The Globe and Mail

Afghanistan's neighbours discuss post-NATO region

A Canadian soldier rests on the muzzle of his rifle while riding in an armoured vehicle in Kandahar province on Nov. 16, 2007.


Iran and India, two countries with a major stake in Afghanistan, have already started talking about how to handle the withdrawal of NATO forces from the region.

They appeared to find agreement as Iran's deputy foreign minister emerged from talks with his Indian counterparts to announce that both countries would oppose any change to the Afghan constitution, a key insurgent demand.

"We agreed upon the constitution of Afghanistan as the base and pillar of any action that should be taken," said Mohammed Ali Fathollahi, Iran's deputy foreign minister for the Asia-Pacific region.

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The jockeying for control of Afghanistan's future will likely grow more intense as Western countries start pulling out troops. The Dutch mission ended this summer, Canada is scheduled to follow suit next year, and U.S. President Barack Obama has promised to start reducing his country's military presence in July, 2011.

That leaves Afghanistan's neighbours eager to form a consensus about what happens next. The Taliban and other insurgent groups have called for an overhaul of the constitution - which, among other things, guarantees a higher percentage of female parliamentarians in Afghanistan than now exists in Canada - but the Iranian minister repeatedly emphasized that the constitution is not negotiable.

Iran also insists on a strong central government in Kabul, a concept that has been increasingly called into question by prominent U.S. think tanks and others, who point to Afghanistan's history of decentralized governance by local chiefs. Some have even suggested the country could be broken up into autonomous regions.

Iran and India both fear such outcomes: Iran, because it would give the Sunni Taliban control of lands bordering Shia Iran; and India, because it would give a victory to insurgent forces that India views as proxies for its rival Pakistan.

Iran stands ready to back the Kabul government's police and military should it prove necessary, Mr. Fathollahi said.

"Empowering the military forces of Afghanistan and also the police of Afghanistan are points on which countries of the region should help, and Iran voices its readiness to help in this regard," he said.

Indian officials have previously mused about expanding their military assistance to Afghanistan, as well, although such action would be hotly opposed by Pakistan.

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Still, the Iranian minister seemed skeptical that any foreign forces could quell the unrest.

"We disagree in principle with the idea that Afghanistan has a military solution," he said. "We don't consider the heavy presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan as a solution."

Iran nearly went to war with the Taliban in 1990s, and supported their enemies in northern Afghanistan throughout that decade. After 2001, the relationship between Tehran and the insurgents has been less easily defined; the U.S. military complained that the Taliban received weapons and other help from the Iranian side of the border, but analysts do not generally see Iran giving large-scale support to the insurgents.

In the last year, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a noisy display of distancing himself from his U.S. and NATO allies, he has also started embracing Iran as an alternative source of support.

In turn, Tehran has seemed eager to strengthen its ties with Kabul; during Friday's press conference at the Iranian embassy, the minister gave the sort of ringing endorsement of President Karzai's government that rarely gets voiced: "We believe and consider the government of Afghanistan as a good replacement for any [foreign]troops in the country," he said. "We don't have any doubt in the capability of the government of Afghanistan."

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