US withdrawal likely to boost Iran’s project to control Afghanistan
During President Donald Trump’s remaining months in office, it is expected that US troops will withdraw from Afghanistan ahead of schedule. As a result, several questions have surfaced about Afghanistan’s future under the Taliban, the nature of the relationship between Iran and the Taliban, and Tehran’s ties with Al-Qaeda. The relationships between Iran and these two militant outfits follow the same path as Tehran’s close ties with numerous other terrorist organizations, whether in Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Yemen or the African Sahel countries, especially Mali.
Pragmatism, or realpolitik, has been the hallmark of the partnership between the Taliban and Iran over the past two decades, such as in the Iraqi case and conflicting with Washington’s role in the Middle East. During the tenure of George W. Bush, despite the heated rhetoric emanating from Washington, which placed Iran’s regime at the center of the “Axis of Evil,” the US did a big favor to Iran by helping it to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
The Taliban’s emergence in Afghanistan occurred at a time when Iran’s presence in the country was growing. The Taliban killed Abdul Ali Mazari, the leader of the Afghan Shiites and the head of the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, in 1995. Three years later, the Taliban assassinated 10 Iranian diplomats in the Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif as part of its war against the Iranian-backed Northern Alliance.
At that time, it seemed as though the Iranian regime was about to become stuck in the Afghan quagmire, with Tehran mobilizing its troops on the border and threatening to invade. Before it did so, Iran suddenly backed down, opting instead to support the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, with US forces ousting the Taliban from power. The Americans went on to remove the Iranian regime’s other nemesis at the time, Saddam, in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In Iraq, Iran carried out operations against US forces to pressure Washington into installing a pro-Iranian Shiite government. This pressure worked, with Nouri Al-Maliki becoming Iraq’s prime minister. In Afghanistan, Iran followed a similar policy, backing the Taliban to carry out attacks on US forces from 2001 until the start of peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban in what became known as the Doha peace talks.
Despite Iran’s support for American forces in their overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001, it subsequently provided a safe haven to senior Taliban leaders. Moreover, it handed over the bases used by the Northern Alliance to Taliban fighters who had fled to Iran and provided them with weapons. Several meetings took place between Iranian officials and members of the Taliban’s political bureau, such as Tayyab Agha, the chairman of the bureau at the time, and the late Akhtar Mansour, the movement’s former head, whose relations with Tehran were exposed when he was killed while traveling from Iran into Pakistan in 2016. The Wall Street Journal provided further evidence of the close ties, revealing that Iran had provided the Taliban with finances and military equipment, as well as paying monthly salaries to some Taliban leaders.
Kabul has documented much evidence of the close cooperation between Iran and the Taliban. In May, Afghanistan’s intelligence service managed to arrest Qari Shafi, aka Hafiz Omeri, a senior Taliban official and military commander, in the Afghan province of Herat as he crossed the Iranian border during one of his trips. It is also known that the Taliban maintains an informal office in Iranian city of Mashhad.The Afghan government has complained on multiple occasions about the pro-Taliban activities spearheaded by Iran’s infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) stationed at the Iranian Embassy in Kabul. The Afghan government in March expelled two IRGC officials who were using diplomatic cover to support the Taliban’s insurgency against Kabul.
Iran hopes that — through its ongoing military support to the Taliban in its fight against the Afghan government, as well as the diplomatic support it provided to the movement throughout the Doha negotiations with the current US administration — it can contain the Taliban and employ the movement to meet its objectives in Afghanistan following the pullout of US forces from the country.
The current US administration believes that the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan may create a new threat to Iran. However, this is simply untrue. Iran’s relationship with the Taliban in 2020 is totally different from what it was in 2001.
Iran will use the Taliban to bring Afghanistan into the Russo-Iranian alliance. This trajectory has no ideological or sectarian dimension that might bring the Iranian regime’s hard-line Shiite doctrine into conflict with the hard-line Sunni doctrine of the Taliban movement. This relationship will instead focus solely on political and economic dimensions to realize the interests of Iran and Russia in the region.
The Iranian regime has already begun to end Afghanistan’s economic dependence on Pakistan via the development of the Iranian port of Chabahar, located on the Indian Ocean, which will be linked with Afghan territories via a railroad. Iran hopes to replace Pakistan as Afghanistan’s main maritime port. It also wants to hold up the Afghan government’s projects on the Helmand River so that it can exploit Afghan water sources in the eastern regions for domestic purposes.
Iran hopes that it can contain the Taliban and employ the movement to meet its objectives in Afghanistan.
Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami
Tehran aspires to change the Afghan political map by returning the Taliban to power and bringing back members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, which is made up of Afghan Shiites, from their current deployment in Syria to play a military and political role in Afghanistan, similar to the Hezbollah model in Lebanon. Iran has already succeeded in increasing the presence of Hazara Shiites in the Afghan parliament and continues to support the formation of Shiite political entities with military wings in Afghanistan, again like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Iran controls all the levers within the Afghan political scene. It tries to influence the Afghan government by making numerous promises, such as supporting Kabul in case further fighting breaks out following the withdrawal of US forces and the Taliban’s likely non-compliance with the provisions of the Doha peace agreement. This leaves the Afghan sphere totally open to Iranian influence, backed by Russia and India, leading ultimately to another Iraq on Iran’s eastern border.
Iran is expected to perpetuate a constant state of “no peace, no war” between the Afghan government and the Taliban. By gradually weakening the control of the central government in Kabul, the Iranian regime will maximize its own influence and strengthen the role of Afghan Shiites, with the ultimate objective of dominating Afghanistan like it does Iraq.
Tehran’s appointment of Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, formerly the commander of the notorious Quds Force’s operations in Afghanistan, as the organization’s new head following the killing of Qassem Soleimani was a very calculated move. It was intended to extend the Iranian regime’s expansionist project eastward, with the conditions in Afghanistan favoring Tehran after it cast a spell over the Taliban. All these factors mean that the imminent US pullout from Afghanistan, without providing the Afghan government with the necessary help and resources to maintain security and resist the Taliban, is a straightforward handover of the country to Iran.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is Head of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami