Bandwidth! Low latency! Sexy!

OK, so Thomas P.M. Barnett is purring like a kitten at the discovery that his Blueprint for Action has been translated into Turkish. Barnett’s famed prescription, the so-called SysAdmin Force, seems to be vanishing under the far horizon. Check out this NYT report from western Afghanistan. It seems the Iranians are dramatically out-competing NATO & Co in reconstruction in Afghanistan.

What’s more interesting is the how. As well as building roads, they laid a new fibre-optic link across the border into Herat, whose far end will interconnect with the Europe-Asia 1 and 2 cables and the FLAG and SMW3 landings in the UAE. They are also planning to extend the railway from Mashad into Afghanistan – hell, even the British Empire didn’t manage to build a railway in Afghanistan, and that’s saying something. Note, by the way, that quite soon there will be through standard-gauge track from anywhere in Europe, and onward towards China not long after that.

Iranian officials said they had focused on roads and power as a quick way to strengthen Afghanistan’s economy. A major project has involved upgrading roads linking Afghanistan with the Iranian port of Chabahar, on the Gulf of Oman.

In many ways, Muhammad Reza Dabbaghi embodies Iran’s new approach in Afghanistan. Mr. Dabbaghi, a 46-year-old engineer, is the top executive here for the Iranian company that built the new 70-mile highway linking western Afghanistan to Iran two years ago, is paving much of the northwestern city of Herat and hopes to build the new railway, all with Iranian government financing.

Can anyone provide an economic and technical rationale for the Western reconstruction effort that succinct and credible? Meanwhile, in Kabul, some ugly signs:

Last year, the Iranian Embassy opened the Iranian Corner, a room in Kabul University’s main library filled with computers, books and magazines from Iran, promoting Iran’s ancient culture and modern achievements. Librarians say it is more popular than the adjoining American Corner, sponsored by the United States Embassy, primarily because it has a better Internet connection. Unlike in Iran, where the government blocks thousands of Web sites, the Iranian Corner offers open Internet access.

Consider that for a moment. We’re being beaten for openness and connectivity by the Iranians. Wi-Fi: it’s the Marlboros of today, if that isn’t too Friedmanesque. And we are still offering outreach projects, speeches on the radio (to quote Carlo Levi), and the occasional AC-130 strike-in-error. When was the last time you heard of an Iranian F14 accidentally bombing an Afghan wedding?

When the Taliban were ousted in 2001, Iran promised to help stabilize Afghanistan. In Germany that December, it was Iranian diplomats who stepped in to save foundering talks to form a new Afghan government, persuading the Northern Alliance to accept the agreement. Soon after, Iran pledged $560 million in aid and loans to Afghanistan over five years, a “startling” amount for a nonindustrialized nation, according to James Dobbins, the senior American envoy to Afghanistan at the time.

A week later, President Bush situated Iran on the “axis of evil.” But even as they assailed that characterization, Mr. Dobbins said, Iranian officials privately offered to train Afghan soldiers. The Bush administration rejected the offer.

Elsewhere in the story, it seems the Iranians have got rid of $230 million of that budget already. When the British Army headed for Helmand this year, there was talk of a £50 million aid budget in its baggage train, or $97 million, almost twice as much as the apparent Iranian annual total. At the last count, I’m not aware that any significant capital amount had been spent. Certainly DFID hasn’t bought 40 per cent of the Iranian effort.

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