Prospects of an Afghan Peace (Part IV): Afghanistan's neighbors – The wildcard

Analytics | Philip Roehrs-Weist | 26-03-2019, 07:55

With the Doha talks showing significant progress over the last couple months, Afghan opposition leaders negotiating with the Taliban in Moscow recently and President Trump once again floating the idea of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in his state of the union address, it seems like Washington's military disengagement is just a matter of time. With the main security guarantor of the Afghan government out of the picture, will peace be possible in the war-torn country? After the third and part explained the predicted engagement of  India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and China in Afghanistan, the fourth part will explain the ability of  Iran to swing the post-U.S. developments in either way.

Read the first part here

Read the second part here.

Read the third part here

 

The Wildcard: Iran

Out of all the regional powers that will try to shape Afghanistan's future, Iran is the most difficult to predict. On the one side, Iran has plenty of motivation to stabilize the Afghan government. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, Iran opposed their fundamentalist Sunni model and the repression against minorities, especially the Afghan Shia, as Teheran wanted to uphold the image of the protector power of all Shiites. Tehran provided assistance to the Northern Alliance and the Taliban executed Iranian diplomatic personnel after they seized the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. Considering this prior rivalry, Iran has an obvious interest in preventing the re-emergence of an Islamist Sunni rival on its eastern flank that might attempt to destabilize the Shiite regime. Keeping Afghanistan open to Iranian influence provides other secondary benefits like economic ties and maybe, more importantly, recruiting ground for Iran's Afghan proxy units, like Liwa Fatimiyoun and the Khadem al-Aqila Brigades. Afghan militias like these have not only been utilized to support the recent efforts by the IRGC and Iranian allies in Syria but have historically supported Iran's agenda since the Iran-Iraq war.

That being said, Afghanistan is most important for Tehran in the context of U.S.-Iran relations. During the ISAF-mission in Afghanistan, Iran reportedly not only pushed an anti-American insurgency in Iraq but also warmed up its relations to the Taliban and started to provide support to its former rival in order to spoiler U.S. advances in Afghanistan. At first, these measures were aimed at bogging Washington down to make sure the Bush-administration would not be freed up to conduct regime change in Iran. Tehran later retained it's connections to non-state actors throughout the Greater Middle East as part of an irregular deterrent against possible American military actions. Under the Trump-administration's renewed confrontation with Iran, this capability to spoiler U.S. interests is ever more relevant.

As it was mentioned above, Iran only wanted to use the Taliban insurgency to spoil U.S. efforts but actually has no interest in the re-establishment of Taliban rule. With an American withdrawal, the situation becomes tricky. Iran could still use its connection to threaten the complete reversal of American achievements in Afghanistan, yet this would lead to a disadvantageous situation for Iran as well. To make a push for this, Tehran would encourage more radical Taliban factions that not only oppose a peace agreement and the condition of ending the support for global jihadist groups but would probably challenge the Shiite regime Iran once they secured a dominant enough position in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, it seems that the U.S. threat of regime change and destabilization is much more serious than any problems the Taliban could cause. Because of that, Tehran is likely to attempt to retain its spoiler capability in Afghanistan as leverage in future negotiations with Washington. This would probably tip the balance in favor of the Taliban, considering that Pakistan's support is unlikely to wane, leading to a strengthened Taliban that is strongly influenced by its hardline wing.

The outlook for Kabul under such developments are grim. Still, it could play out differently as the Trump-administration, besides taking a tough stance on Iran, signaled a general openness to start new diplomatic negotiations with Iran. To get into these renewed talks, Tehran would have to signal a readiness to abandon its support for radical militants throughout the Greater Middle East. Afghanistan would be a good pawn to give up first as it is important to the U.S. but not as strategically vital for Iran's irregular deterrent as its proxies in the Gulf and the Levant. So taking a constructive stance in Afghanistan by supporting moderate Taliban factions and refraining from military support could be a good trust-building measure before Tehran or Washington make more significant concessions. Overall, Iran is a key piece in the Afghanistan puzzle, as it is needed as a stabilizing actor to fully achieve the potential of the other pro-government powers. While Uzbekistan and China would be incentivized to step up its investments to connect to Iranian markets and energy, it is India who is relying on Iran to serve as a launchpad into Afghanistan. Iran's Chabahar port, which would allow India to bypass Pakistan, could serve as a „force-multiplier“ for India. There are plenty of incentives already in place for further Iranian-Indian cooperation, as both share certain strategic goals in containing Pakistan's Sunni proxies, stabilizing Afghanistan and supplying India's energy needs. In this sense, the USA should consider to exempt India from the sanctions-regime that would prohibit this kind of cooperation. An exemption of that kind has recently been issued by Washington in regards to Iraq's energy imports from Iran.

Overall, Iran is a hard to predict. The country might turn out to be the wildcard that could swing Afghanistan in either direction and the role Tehran will take will be heavily influenced by Washington's Iran-strategy.

 

Conclusion

When we look at Afghanistan's neighboring regional powers, there is again much reason to be pessimistic. Many dominoes have to fall the right way and it seems unlikely that Pakistan will give up its leverage in Afghanistan in favor of stability. India, Uzbekistan, as well as China, would have to significantly step up their efforts to make up for the void left by the U.S.. In addition to that, Tehran would have to adopt a stabilizing role in Afghanistan so India could fulfill all of its much-needed potential. If Iran instead decides to spoiler the stabilizing effort to undermine U.S. interests, the chances for an enduring peace will be slim. Washington should take this into account when it considers its Iran-strategy.

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Philip Roehrs-Weist

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