USA vs. Pakistan vs. Iran: The Three-Way Battle for Afghanistan

They could tear it apart—or work together.

On June 6, Khorasan Province of Islamic State claimed credit for the killing of Sher Wali Wardak, an Afghan parliamentarian. If confirmed, the killing will represent a new chapter in ISIS’s capacity to operate in Afghanistan. The attack happened as professors from Ghazni University in the eastern part of the country are warning of ISIS infiltration of the university, another sign that the group seeks to expand its base of support in the country. Elsewhere, Afghan media have reported that Al Qaeda is making efforts to strengthen its relations with the Taliban, which has been confirmed by Gen. Charles Cleveland, spokesman for NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. While radical Islamists of various shades continue to conspire and thrive on Afghan soil, the necessary pushback by regional states and the international community is still not in place. Fighting radical Islamists in Afghanistan represents a golden opportunity for international cooperation, including the United States, Iran and Pakistan. History shows it can be done.


Cursed to Be a Battleground

The idea of securing peace in Afghanistan in the foreseeable future might seem to be a pipe dream today. A decade and half after the toppling of the Taliban in late 2001 and many billions of dollars in foreign aid, the country still faces an array of calamitous challenges. From political gridlock and petty competition for power among the country’s small elite, to prevalent corruption, to a widespread sense of hopelessness within the general population, Afghanistan sits in a hard place. In the midst of all its domestic struggles, Afghanistan also needs to contend with the rivaling agendas of foreign powers, including those states—such as the United States—that are still engaged in stabilization efforts in the country, and neighboring states—such as Iran and Pakistan—that continue to view Afghan soil as battleground for geopolitical rivalry through support for local proxies. This state of affairs is hardly a new development. History shows that for decades Afghanistan has been a stage for turf wars among regional actors.

Another equally important reality is that warring Afghans are themselves mostly to be blamed for always seeking external patrons. But recent history also shows that when principal foreign actors with a vested interest in Afghan affairs converge on the lowest common denominator, Afghanistan benefits. Throughout the period from the end of the Second World War until the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet military in December 1979, that common denominator was the threat posed by Moscow to Afghan sovereignty. This test was the central point that for decades unified American, Iranian and Pakistani interests on the Afghan question.

Today the Soviet Union has long disappeared from the political map, but extremist Islamists from Taliban, Al Qaeda and now ISIS all pose a menacing threat to Afghanistan on the back of a debilitated central government in Kabul. This threat and many other questions on the future of Afghanistan appear at a time when Iran is about to resurface on the global mainstream stage, following years of isolation due to its controversial nuclear program. Not only is Iran a key player that can go a long way to constructively shape Afghan politics, but other key players in this context—most notably the United States and Pakistan—have separately signaled a willingness to cooperate with Tehran whenever a mutual interest is at stake. In such a setting, nothing is perhaps more pressing for all three states—the United States, Iran and Pakistan—than to find ways to collaborate to help Afghanistan stand on its feet.


Zero-Sum Games

What probably trumps all other obstacles in the path of international cooperation on Afghanistan is the still dominant tendency to consider the country as a winner-take-all proposition. That is to say, a conviction that going it alone and with those states that shares one’s narrow objectives, and thus hoping for the largest dividend in terms of amount of leverage in shaping Afghanistan’s trajectory, is preferable to alternatives. That is certainly the unfortunate reality of postures adopted by Iran and Pakistan—both with a rich history of having backed various Afghan groups—but also other important regional actors, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Russian Federation.

Consider the important issue of regional cooperation and the long-term hope for economic integration in a part of the world where cross-border partnership is dismally limited. In April 2016, it was announced that Afghanistan, India and Iran completed negotiations on the use of Chabahar, a southern Iranian port on the Indian Ocean that has for decades been identified as a strategic channel linking the landlocked states of Central Asia and Afghanistan to international waters. The port is considered a huge boon to Afghan international trade potential and the economic growth that might come as a result.