Saudi Arabia and Iran’s ongoing proxy war in the Middle East is never far from the headlines. The two countries have sparked or exacerbated various conflicts throughout the region, including in Syria and Yemen, two of the most complex and devastating wars in recent history. But another battle between the two regional powerhouses has gone relatively unnoticed, even though it could further destabilize a key strategic theater for the West: Afghanistan.
Since entering Afghanistan nearly 15 years ago, NATO has committed thousands of troops and billions of dollars to the country. Today, 13,000 NATO troops remain there, and this summer, NATO committed to continue funding Afghan forces until 2020.
But despite all these efforts, Afghanistan remains highly volatile, with a weak central government and various insurgency groups that maintain considerable influence in the country. Many of these groups have a long history of working with Tehran or Riyadh and sometimes both. Although both capitals fund Islamic centers and various groups in Afghanistan, their respective strategies for the region diverge considerably.
Iran sees Afghanistan as a primary zone of influence, much as it sees Iraq. The two countries share a porous border, as well as cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and economic ties. Iran is also home to a large number of Afghan refugees, and increased instability and insecurity there translate into even more. Further, narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan fuels Iran’s epidemic of drug abuse. For these reasons, Tehran was already present in Afghanistan when the United States and its NATO allies intervened in 2001. At the time, Iran saw the NATO war as an opportunity and worked with Washington and its partners to defeat the Taliban and stabilize the country. Tehran also leveraged its influence to help build a new national government in Kabul and donated hundreds of millions in aid. Iran has often been a helpful force in Afghanistan, unlike in other similar conflicts it’s involved in, such as Syria.
Saudi Arabia has a long history in Afghanistan as well. Riyadh and private