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Wednesday, 20 June 2001

ISRAEL’S UNLIKELY AFGHANISTAN GAMBIT

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By Christopher Boucek (6/20/2001 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: Afghanistan has become of significant interest to policy makers in Tel Aviv for many reasons. As Israel continues to develop its role in Central Asia, several of Tel Aviv's new allies and partners in the region have similar concerns when it comes to Afghanistan. In cementing its ties with these new partners, Israel has been keen to cooperate in matters of mutual concern while simultaneously advancing its national interests.

BACKGROUND: Afghanistan has become of significant interest to policy makers in Tel Aviv for many reasons. As Israel continues to develop its role in Central Asia, several of Tel Aviv's new allies and partners in the region have similar concerns when it comes to Afghanistan. In cementing its ties with these new partners, Israel has been keen to cooperate in matters of mutual concern while simultaneously advancing its national interests. Turkey, China, Russia, and India, as well as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan have come to view Afghanistan as the center of regional instability. The ruling Taliban regime have turned their nation into the leading source of illicit narcotics, and the primary supporter and operational base for Islamic militants intent upon destabilizing great swaths of Eurasia.

Over the last several years the State of Israel has established and maintained significant contacts with both sides in Afghanistan's civil war. The Israeli press has previously reported on contacts between Tel Aviv and the Taliban, and the Rabbani-led Northern Alliance government. Reports in Yediot Aharonot, Ha'aretz, and Ma'ariv have all detailed meetings between the Israeli government – including the Foreign Ministry, Mossad, and other aspects of Israel's state security apparatus – and representatives from the various Afghan factions across Europe, and even in Israel proper. Similar stories have also run in the Arabic and Persian press. In 1998, the Taliban accepted over 15 tons of Israeli relief supplies for the devastating earthquake that struck Afghanistan.

Israeli intelligence agencies, including Mossad and presumably the Aman (Military Intelligence) for signals, electronic, and telemetry intelligence, have maintained contact with both the ruling Taliban and the Northern Alliance. Sources close to Israeli intelligence have claimed that ‘Mossad has been infiltrating Afghan-born Jews in Kabul to try and penetrate the Taliban regime’. Dialogue with the Taliban has taken place regarding the establishment of intelligence collection facilities to monitor Iran, and possibly Pakistan. Teheran's vehement opposition to the existence of the state of Israel, support for Palestinian terror groups, and quest for Weapons of Mass Destruction continues to drive Israel's intelligence collection efforts. Similarly, Islamabad's nuclear capability and ongoing conflict in Kashmir with

Israeli partner-India has further underscored the importance of Afghan-based collection operations. The relationship with the Northern Alliance has been to facilitate arms and equipment deliveries, ostensibly aimed at stemming the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and Muslim nationalism into Central Asia, the Caucasus, and China. These have been accomplished with the cooperation and participation of Russia, Turkey, and Tajikistan.

Tel Aviv's support for the Northern Alliance can be easily understood as both the Afghan opposition and the Jewish state seek to prevent a total Taliban victory. Reports in the French media have surfaced as early as 1998 that Israeli military advisors were on the ground assisting the Northern Alliance in their fight against the Taliban. As for the Taliban, there are several potential explanations as to why the militia would cooperate with Israel. Both view Iran as a hostile state, and it is not inconceivable that Tel Aviv would share some of the intelligence collected against Teheran with their Afghan hosts. The Taliban originally enjoyed Israel's, as well as Israel's U.S. lobby’s, support as a buffer against Iran. Moreover, some sources have claimed that there exist Israeli financial interests in reviving the failed 'Unocal plan' for a pipeline crossing Afghanistan, which if true could potentially result in significant benefit to all parties. It is not improbable to consider that Israel would curry influence in Afghanistan while the Taliban desperately seek international recognition and victory in the civil war – something Israeli security officials have previously promised and delivered to other nations.

IMPLICATIONS: The likelihood of Israel's activity in Afghanistan advancing a solution to the ongoing civil war is extremely remote. That is not an objective of the State of Israel in its dealings with Afghanistan. Rather, Tel Aviv is content to keep all factions fighting, with none achieving supremacy. Afghanistan will not pose a major external threat to Israel or any of its strategic partners as long as the factions continue fighting. The continuation of the civil war will also allow Tel Aviv to monitor developments in Iran, a much larger concern for Israel's national security establishment. The Taliban and the Northern Alliance both regularly trade accusations of cooperation with Israel against one another, all the while silently working with Tel Aviv. However, any victor in the Afghan civil war would quickly distance itself from Israel, and create a void in Israel's vital national collection requirements. Recent events, such as the destruction of the great Buddhas at Bamiyan, the Taliban's decision to force non-Muslims to wear identification, and the regime's condemnation of the convictions in the US embassies bombing trial, have all demonstrated the Taliban's intransigence and disregard for international opinion. These factors only reinforce the need of concerned nations to have access to relevant intelligence on Afghanistan. Israel's intelligence presence in Afghanistan, when considered with Israel's access to airbases in Turkey, India, and Tajikistan, increase the potential success of a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear weapons program. The surveillance facilities in Afghanistan (like those in the Caucasus) will serve to facilitate a first strike, as well as to put Teheran on notice.

CONCLUSIONS: The renewed violence of the al-Aqsa Intifada has also served to reinforce Tel Aviv's interest in Afghanistan. Israel's security planners have been keen to insure the upsurge in Palestinian fighting does not translate into greater Muslim outrage at – and strikes against – the Jewish state. From the outset of the Intifada, Iran has been vocal in its support for the Palestinian uprising. An Israeli presence on Teheran's eastern border may serve to temper this support. Likewise, Tel Aviv's military and security cooperation with India, Russia, and the Central Asian republics positions Israel to continue its Afghan efforts. By quietly engaging the different Afghan factions, Israel has developed unique access to intelligence and developments within Afghanistan. This information will certainly be of interest to Israel's new allies, thereby further solidifying its expanding and evolving relationships.

AUTHOR BIO: Christopher Boucek is the former managing editor of the Middle East Times in Cairo, Egypt. He currently conducts research and analysis on Central Asia and the Middle East.

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