Afghanistan is one of the most intense areas of international instability in the world, affecting the dangerous rivalry between nuclear-armed neighbours India and Pakistan and extending its strategic significance to the Middle East.
The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) has increased terror levels around the world and redrawn much of the map of the Middle East. However, as its affiliates seek to establish a foothold in Afghanistan, they could imbue the country’s long-standing internal conflict with new and more pressing strategic significance. Consequently, the establishment of ISIS operations in Afghanistan will force a revision of policy positions and priorities inside the country as well as among its various international stakeholders.
The most credible counter to ISIS expansion within Afghanistan is not the country’s troubled government but its Sunni insurgent group, the Taliban. Since 2001, the Taliban has proven resilient in the face of overwhelming allied military firepower and still seems as unlikely as ever to fizzle out of existence. The Taliban has more money, more fighters and more territory now than it has had at any time since the US-led invasion. It is showing no sign of halting its activities.
However, as ISIS emerges it does so at the expense of the Taliban, a group that has declined to ally with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s fabled caliphate. As the only serious check on ISIS expansion in central Asia, it is the Taliban rather than the embattled government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that many view as a potential ally.
Iran is adapting its approach to Afghanistan. Having recognised the utility of the Taliban as an anti- ISIS bulwark, Iran is developing low levels of engagement with Taliban field commanders. Given their dramatically opposed religious views, the development of Iran-Taliban ties seems unthinkable. Iran had supported the American toppling of the Taliban as well as the establishment of Afghanistan’s post-conflict administration.
However, Tehran has adopted a more pragmatic line. First, by developing ties to the Taliban, the Iranians may exert influence over the direction of the Taliban’s attention and add another lever by which to challenge or deter US interests.
Second, a key Iranian priority has been to ensure ISIS does not gain a foothold anywhere near its borders, especially the one it shares with Afghanistan. To that end, cooperation with the Taliban is beneficial to both sides.
Third, Tehran has accepted the prospect of the Taliban outliving the diminishing military campaign directed against it. Consequently, it makes sense for Iranians to improve ties with the insurgent group and preserve options for the future.
In addition to reaching out to the Taliban, Tehran is supporting the Kabul government, strengthening its influence beyond the Shia Afghan communities it supports and limiting its potential political exposure in the event of a major change. Consequently, Iran’s evolving position is moving it closer to the approach of Pakistan, Afghanistan’s most influential external stakeholder.
The last two years have seen Moscow shift its policy in Afghanistan, especially with regards to the Taliban, fearing ISIS’s international agenda will generate instability from extremists in the Caucasus and Central Asian countries. Beijing is also stepping-up efforts to facilitate a peace process in Afghanistan as it constructs its Silk Road trade corridors, so Tehran’s moves are not in isolation from key regional stakeholders.
At a time when Riyadh is seeking to include Islamabad in its anti-Iran camp, such growing Iranian convergence with Pakistan on Afghan policy is unhelpful to the Saudis, even if it is coincidental. Afghanistan will remain the most important strategic issue for Pakistan for some time, especially considering the nature of its intense rivalry with India.
Arab Gulf countries will need to manoeuvre soon if they are to contain Iranian influence in Afghanistan, with the Taliban and Tehran’s growing convergence with Pakistan on Afghan policy. One option for the Arab Gulf might be to establish diplomatic momentum towards supporting a serious peace process between Kabul and the Taliban. This was an option previously, if unsuccessfully, explored by Qatar. However, Doha’s role probably needs to shift elsewhere.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, together with Pakistan, were the first countries to recognise the Taliban government when it took Kabul in 1996. Though all three later supported the US-led invasion, this does not need to be a fundamental obstacle to progress. With al-Qaeda crippled years ago, providing ISIS a strategic opportunity by failing to work out a political road map for Afghanistan that addresses the Taliban’s future role may be unwise.
Aside from countering Iranian influence, adapting Arab Gulf positions on Afghanistan may prove helpful in allowing the United States to focus more fully on Iran. Crucially also, by helping force a breakthrough in Afghanistan through a national reconciliation effort, the Arab Gulf countries can ensure Afghanistan does not return to the days when al-Qaeda operated out of its territories without restraint.
Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly.