The New Competition Over Afghanistan Is Just Beginning

August 16, 2021 Topic: Afghanistan Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: AfghanistanTalibanAfghanistan WithdrawalChinaIranPakistan

The New Competition Over Afghanistan Is Just Beginning

Afghanistan has been an open arena for disputes between major world powers and for competition between regional powers for centuries, and this has not changed today.

Events in Afghanistan are moving at a rapid pace and escalating. The fragile government in Kabul has collapsed, and the Taliban has taken complete control over all of Afghanistan’s territories without facing much resistance.

This rapid escalation of events prompted the Afghan government to agree to hand over power to the Taliban and form a transitional government. As developments accelerated, however, two Taliban officials told Reuters that there will be no transitional government in Afghanistan, with the group expecting a full transfer of power to it.

There is no doubt that the impacts of these developments will not be confined to Afghanistan. The Taliban has an overwhelming desire to restore its leadership in the country despite it facing vast disapproval in light of its negative image among huge segments in society—especially among women, minorities, and the young.

Afghanistan has been an open arena for disputes between major world powers and for competition between regional powers for centuries, and this has not changed today. Yet it may be the case that what is happening now is not merely the result of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after years of extensive talks with the Taliban in Doha. Anyone looking at Afghanistan’s strategic location between China and Russia and its place in China’s Belt and Road Initiative will realize Afghanistan’s significance in Washington’s confrontation with Beijing, particularly since Beijing has thwarted the U.S. naval blockade in the South China Sea by developing overland trade routes and transit corridors going through Pakistan.

In other words, from Washington’s strategic perspective, the latest step against China could be to use Afghanistan to encircle Beijing, cutting off vital overland roads passing through Afghanistan by restoring chaos in a country that is accustomed to being an arena for global powers to settle their conflicts.

In addition to trade, there is also a security dimension in the context of U.S.-China competition. In recent years, U.S. officials and media outlets have become increasingly focused on the predicament of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. Xinjiang represents the “line of contagion” between China and Afghanistan, with no official border crossings in this area due to the region’s harsh terrain. From this perspective and in light of the chaos unfolding in Afghanistan—which is already fertile ground for new extremist groups to emerge—it is totally plausible that a newly rebranded version of Al Qaeda or ISIS will emerge there and swiftly infiltrate the Sino-Afghan border to cross into China, hence creating a security challenge for Beijing and undermining its new commercial artery.

Sensing this potential danger, Beijing has already begun intensifying its communications with the Taliban and recently welcomed a high-profile delegation of Taliban officials. This visit came amid leaked reports, which seem implausible, of a deal underway between the Taliban and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) whereby China will provide the Taliban with money, weapons, and equipment in return for cooperation in cracking down on the Uighurs and crushing separatism in the region of East Turkestan.

It is possible that the Taliban is seeking to dupe both the United States and China by planning to exploit each side’s concerns and objectives by selling deceptive promises until it manages to fully take control of Afghanistan. Regardless, the phase that follows the Taliban’s full exertion of control over Afghanistan will provide answers to many of the questions raised, which remain unknown for the time being.

Iran has interests in Afghanistan, too. Thus far, the Iranian leadership is said to be deeply suspicious of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. As a result, Tehran is doing more observing than acting, watching as the situation plays out across the border. Many analysts focus on the classical approach underpinning the relationship between the Taliban and Tehran, arguing that because the two have opposing religious ideologies that they will have divergent relations. While this was true prior to 2001, the nature of this relationship changed massively after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, with strong bridges being built (although some may insist that this relationship is based on realpolitik, necessity, and shared interests) from the provision of Iranian logistical and intelligence support for the Taliban, which opened an office in the Iranian city of Mashhad near the border with Afghanistan and regularly visited Tehran to meet with senior officials.

Those who have monitored Iran’s comments regarding the Taliban in recent years would have noticed a softening of Tehran’s general position towards the group. For example, in an interview conducted by the Afghan Tolo channel, former Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said

As you pointed out, the Taliban killed eight of my colleagues before doing so with others. Therefore, our definition of the Taliban is that the Taliban has committed many terrorist acts. Before naming the Taliban as terrorists, the Taliban is a group in Afghanistan that has committed terrorist acts and it is necessary now to consider the Taliban as part of a future solution, not [the whole] future solution for Afghanistan. There is a big difference in it… Look, the Taliban has committed many terrorist acts. Regarding recognition of the Taliban as a terrorist group, we have not removed the Taliban [from our list of] terrorist groups, in our laws.

Here, it is necessary to point out that the new generation of Taliban leaders may not embrace the complex set of ideological tenets espoused by the group’s founding fathers. Nowadays, they have adopted a more pragmatic approach regarding political objectives that significantly impact the decision-making process among the group’s senior leadership.

It is possible that the Taliban could turn a blind eye to the fact that Iran played a pivotal role in the fall of its former government. But the Taliban’s approach to Iran in the upcoming period depends on the nature of its relations with the remaining actors, especially the United States and China.

On balance, it seems probable that Iran will seek to take advantage of the panic currently gripping Afghan society, especially among Shiites, in order to attempt to legitimize the presence of the Iran-aligned Afghan Shiite militia, the Fatemiyoun Brigade. This militia, created and controlled by Iran, was deployed in Syria to fight alongside the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the other Iran-aligned militia deployed across Syrian territory.

Considering regular Iranian statements about forming a Shiite army in Afghanistan that would resemble Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, and that many of the Fatemiyoun Brigade’s members have returned to the country, Tehran has created an essential base for rendering such a plan successful. Indeed, informed sources have told me that Iran opened discussions with the Afghan government on this issue some weeks ago, with Ashraf Ghani’s government reportedly requesting some time to study the proposal.

Yet a few hours after I tweeted this news, the Fatemiyoun Brigade issued a statement denying and dismissing the claims as baseless. The Fatemiyoun Brigade’s statement was reported by multiple Iranian media outlets, primarily the semi-official Tasnim news agency affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). However, we should be mindful of the fact that the IRGC’s elite Qods Force is the prime architect of all Iran’s militias in the region. Its incumbent commander, Esmail Ghaani, was a heavyweight field commander in Afghanistan and Pakistan while the former commander, Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad in January 2020, was responsible for coordinating with the Iran-linked militias in the Arab nations.

The challenge for Iran on this issue is how to strike a balance between acting smartly on the Afghan stage in a way that serves its interests while simultaneously avoiding angering China. As long as Tehran remains economically reliant on Beijing, the Iranians will have to tread carefully. 

The fourth nation involved in Afghanistan’s future is Pakistan, which is considered to be the chief inspiration of the Taliban, with accusations repeatedly leveled against Islamabad that it provides the Taliban with money and weapons and directs the group to carry out its instructions. While there may be some exaggeration about Pakistan’s control over the Taliban’s decision-making process, India, Pakistan’s arch-foe, believes that the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan creates new strategic depth for Islamabad and poses an acute danger to New Delhi in the medium run, especially when it comes to the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir.

Considering the depth of Pakistan’s strategic economic relationship with China, any attack or actions by the Taliban on China’s territory could adversely affect the nature of Pakistani relations with the Taliban by damaging Pakistan’s interests. Thus, it is possible that China could exploit its relations with Pakistan to neutralize any danger that the Taliban could pose to China and its interests. 

These developments and the Taliban’s sudden ascendancy in Afghanistan should not be surprising to any close observer of Afghan affairs, especially after the marathon negotiations in Doha. Despite all the initial pragmatic commitments that the Taliban has made, whether with the United States or with China, the group will now find itself in a position that allows it to re-evaluate its interests and how best to achieve its objectives. Previous political analyses on the Taliban’s strength and the degree of approval domestically and internationally are now largely irrelevant and unhelpful in light of the new fait accompli on the ground. Time will reveal how the region adapts.