The US withdrawal from Afghanistan – resembling a hasty and embarrassing retreat – approaches its final stage as the Taliban captures one district after another. Hundreds of Afghan National Army soldiers have either surrendered to the defiant militia or have simply escaped across the northern border. The power vacuum is anything but a surprise. Unlike other policies of the Trump administration, the Biden White House did not critically review the decision to pull out the remaining 7,000 US troops from Afghanistan and only delayed it by a few weeks. Some analysts believe that Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, may fall to the Taliban this year if no political and military support is provided to the National Unity Government and the country’s armed forces. Despite the two-decade-long presence of UNSC-mandated NATO forces, the war-ravaged country is devoid of any nation-building capacities and lacks self-defense capabilities. For the first time since its existence, the Taliban has captured the strategic Wakhan strip located at the cusp of the borders of Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. Afghanistan’s other neighboring states – Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are mulling over whether to take preemptive action to secure their borders in order to deal with a prospective refugee influx.
Iran seems all set to be the pivotal powerbroker in Afghanistan after its nemesis exits the country. Though Tehran and the Taliban neared a direct conflict in 1998 when eight Iranian diplomats and another government employee were murdered in Mazar-i-Sharif, the situation quickly changed after the United States started Operation Enduring Freedom. Osama bin Laden escaped to Iran as did his family along with many key al-Qaeda leaders. Around the same time, Iran and the Taliban leadership grew closer due to a shared enemy and converging strategic goals. The bond has continued unabated ever since with no untoward incident of abduction or assassination of Iranian citizens or pro-Iranian elements in Afghanistan. In May 2016, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, Mullah Omar’s successor, was killed in a drone strike while returning from Iran to Pakistan. Notwithstanding ties with the Taliban’s militant wing, Tehran consistently engaged with its political office in Doha, repeatedly inviting Taliban members for talks amid Pakistani and US efforts to iron out the modalities of a prospective peace deal with the militia. On April 14, 2019, Iran appointed Ambassador Ebrahim Taherian as its special envoy for Afghanistan.
On July 7, Iran held intra-Afghan talks in Tehran with Sher Abbas Stanikzai, heading the Taliban delegation. The Afghan political side was led by former Afghan Vice President Yunus Qanuni and included Mohammed Karim Khalili, leader of Hezb-i-Wahdat Islami, and top aides of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It is important to note that President Ashraf Ghani also attended the talks.
Apart from Iran’s political and media engagement, it has only recently been able to strengthen the position of Aghanistan’s Shiite minority in the former Karzai government and the present Ghani government. However, it has over 10,000 trained Shiite militants (Fatemiyoun Brigade), and many of them returned to Afghanistan after participating in the Syrian civil war.
Over the past decades, Afghanistan has been vital for Iran’s two critical needs: advanced technological military hardware and access to US dollars. Iran is the Taliban’s favored client for surrendered, stolen and crashed weapons systems. Iran is often in dire need of sophisticated subsystems, some of which can be used in missiles, drones and bombs while sparing others for reverse-engineering and mass production.
Afghanistan is a deep reservoir for US dollars, with its smuggling currently standing at around $4 billion. With the Biden administration planning to lift the sanctions on Iran, it is likely the supply line of US dollars from Afghanistan will also swell. Aside from illicit trade running into billions, formal trade amounts to $2 billion annually between the two countries. Iran has successfully created an alternative trade route for Afghanistan by developing Chahbahar port with Indian investment besides constructing a 140-kilometer railway line from Khaf in Khorasan Province to Afghanistan’s western city of Ghoryan in December 2020, which is set to be extended to Herat. Afghanistan’s many bordering cities remain dependent on Iran’s electricity, petroleum items and educational institutions.
Iran’s multipronged investment in Afghanistan still leaves it with a dilemma. Tehran believes that the Taliban has become much more pragmatic and mature; hence, their behavior will not be rash like it was prior to 9/11. Even if the Taliban continues to be friendly, its evolving pragmatic outlook may mean it could be approached by states wanting to sabotage Iran’s regional interests and the Iranian revolution itself.
In the near term, Iran will continue overt political and diplomatic engagement at bilateral and multilateral levels while preparing for the worst-case scenario in Afghanistan. From the Taliban’s perspective, Iran is a better partner than exhausted and introverted Pakistan, whose primary interest in Afghanistan is to check India’s ambitions. With bordering towns in its control, the militia will seek to use them to generate much needed revenues by smuggling goods, drugs, weapons, and humans.
The newly appointed commander of the Quds Force, Ismail Qaani, has developed unique expertise regarding Afghanistan and Pakistan since the 1980s. He has viewed the Taliban as Iran’s foe as well as its friend. During the 1980s, Qaani raised the Shiite Abuzar Brigade from Afghanistan that fought against Iraq.
Hence, Iran is well-entrenched to deal with the evolving situation in Afghanistan. It will have to pay a high price if Afghanistan continues to be entangled in reckless violence or if the Taliban takes a more independent path. Given its low morale and weak war-fighting capability, the future of the Afghan National Army is anybody’s guess. Iran’s focus on the Fatemiyoun Brigade is set to intensify due to its enhanced deterrent as well as operational standing.