Iran’s Crisis of Legitimacy
An Embattled Regime Faces Mass Protests—and an Ailing Supreme Leader
“We used to appreciate the hard work of the United States for development in Afghanistan,” Iqbal Khyber, a 27-year-old medical student from Helmand Province, told me in Kabul on July 2. “Unfortunately, things happened. The international forces started searching houses, thinking we had links to the Taliban. Special forces raids, misaimed bombs—these caused hatred among the people.”
Khyber and his companions sat under the blast-proof walls of the U.S. embassy. They were members of Afghanistan’s peace caravan, who over the course of 38 days had walked nearly 400 miles from Helmand Province, in the country’s southwest, to Kabul in order to tell Afghanistan’s warring parties that, in the words of a banner they had hung on the embassy wall, “We don’t want violence.”
The peace caravan arrived in Kabul on June 18, the day that the Taliban leaders in Pakistan refused to extend an unprecedented three-day cease-fire between the Afghan government, the Taliban, and the forces of the U.S.-led coalition. During the cease-fire, members of the Taliban entered government-controlled areas, including Kabul city, where they prayed alongside government officials, ate ice cream, and posed for selfies with women. In response to the Taliban refusal, the peace marchers decided to camp out in front of the embassies of the major foreign powers in Afghanistan—the United States, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran—to demand an end to the war, and they appointed a delegation to take their message to Taliban-controlled areas, as well.
At the U.S. embassy, the marchers’ first destination, I asked them questions about the possibility of peace with the Taliban. Khyber rejected the idea, popular in Washington, that intensifying military pressure on the Afghan Taliban will help bring them to the negotiating table. Rather, he said, “Pakistan has to be pressured to expel the Taliban leaders from Pakistan to Afghanistan.” Khyber also disagreed that the Taliban were extremists who would never accept democracy, and he called on the United States to “engage in direct talks with the Taliban and also support talks [between the Taliban and] the government.”
“We need peace, the war has to end,” Khyber told me—but Afghans cannot end the struggle among outside powers. “The Taliban are controlled by the neighbors,” he said. “And the Afghan government is controlled by the international community.”
Afghanistan assumed its modern form in the late nineteenth century. After the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80), the British forced Afghanistan to cede eastern Pashtun lands to India (now Pakistan) and took control of Afghan foreign policy. In return the British subsidized Afghanistan’s Pashtun rulers with guns and cash to subordinate both rebellious Pashtun tribes and the country’s non-Pashtun populations, such as Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. The Afghan state compensated dissident Pashtun tribes with arable land and pasture in non-Pashtun areas. And the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 affirmed that no foreign troops, British or Russian, should enter the country.
This domestic and international bargain produced an Afghan state that was, by design, dependent on foreign powers. It also birthed the twin narratives that have defined much of the country’s politics over the last century: Pashtun grievance over dispossession by the British and Pakistanis and non-Pashtun grievance over dispossession by the centralized, Pashtun-dominated state. Despite its flaws and injustices, the bargain largely succeeded in holding the country together until 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded the country following a pro-Soviet coup the previous year. After the Soviets arrived, however, rival powers such as China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States began arming every Afghan party, faction, tribe, and ethnic group willing to fight them. Since then, great powers and regional actors alike have failed to arrive at a new understanding over Afghanistan, and the country has continued to suffer from both internal divisions and geopolitical rivalries beyond its control.
Both those internal divisions and the continued opposition of regional powers to a U.S.-dominated future for Kabul have frustrated efforts to realize the peace marchers’ vision. The Taliban-government cease-fire that brought hope to so many also aroused fears among some of the former’s staunchest adversaries. When Taliban from south of Kabul moved into the city’s ethnically mixed central districts, they encountered cautiously curious crowds, although some skeptics and traumatized victims stayed indoors. Further north, defiant Tajiks flew the black, white, and green flag of the anti-Taliban resistance. Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s intelligence chief from 2004 to 2010 and the CIA’s former liaison to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban commander assassinated by al Qaeda in 2001, told me that armed men gathered in his home to ask if they should fire on Taliban convoys if they moved north into their neighborhoods. Saleh tried to calm them by relaying assurances he had received from U.S. Ambassador John Bass and General John Nicholson. Fortunately, the Taliban never moved north.
Tensions rose again on July 2, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, ordered the arrest of Nizamuddin Qaisari, an Uzbek commander loyal to the warlord and first vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, for allegedly threatening to kill people during a security meeting in the northern province of Faryab. Dostum is the country’s principal Uzbek leader, and his support was key to Ghani’s election in 2014. Until recently, he had been living in Ankara in order to avoid prosecution on charges of rape and torture, which Afghanistan, Turkey, and the United States feared could provoke a political crisis.
Some saw the arrest of Qaisari as an admirable attempt by Ghani to curb warlordism, regardless of ethnicity. But others, especially those from non-Pashtun ethnic groups, accused him of using national forces as shock troops of Pashtun supremacy. A video circulated on social media showed soldiers abusing members of Qaisari’s protection team. Ghani promised an investigation, but demonstrations soon spread across northern Afghanistan, at times closing the road to Kabul and shuttering the offices of the election commission in five provinces. Ghani sent his close adviser Fazel Fazly to Ankara, where he negotiated the return of Dostum to Kabul on July 22. Rather than being arrested, in a concession to political reality, Dostum was given a formal welcome as first vice president.
In addition to these domestic tensions, regional states, all of which claim to support a peace process, nonetheless feel threatened by efforts to stabilize Afghanistan that would result in the long-term presence of U.S. military bases.
At the Pakistan embassy, the peace marchers addressed a letter to “the people of Pakistan and the world,” blaming the bloodshed on “Pakistan’s intelligence, army and government.” They cut their palms with a knife and signed the letter in blood. In April, Pakistan and Afghanistan agreed to the Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity, which obliges both sides to act against terrorists and insurgents threatening the other. Afghanistan and the United States did their part on June 15 when, acting on Afghan intelligence, the United States killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Mullah Fazlullah, in a drone strike in eastern Afghanistan. Pakistan, however, still refuses to even detain Afghan Taliban leaders residing in its territory, who make war on U.S. and Afghan forces and commit acts of terrorism.
When the peace marchers reached the Russian embassy, they posted an “appeal to the Russian people” on Twitter: “Your government is conducting an undeclared war with the Americans on our land.” Both Afghanistan and the United States have accused Russia of providing aid to the Taliban, for instance by leaving behind poorly secured arms caches after war games in Tajikistan, a tactic it also used to arm rebels in eastern Ukraine. The Russians argue that the disarray of Afghan security forces leaves them no choice but to establish links with local commanders in order to protect Central Asia’s borders, which Moscow views as vital to its own security. (Moscow claims that those commanders are “warlords” rather than “real” Taliban.) Russia’s approach to the Taliban has been affected by its concern about the Islamic State (ISIS) presence in northern Afghanistan—in early July, the Taliban launched an offensive, possibly with Russian support, to drive ISIS out of Darzab district, near the border with Turkmenistan. And Moscow may view relations with the Taliban as a form of deterrence against Washington: in private discussions in Moscow in late 2016, Russian officials warned that if the United States armed Ukraine it might face antiaircraft fire in Afghanistan.
Feeling excluded from peace initiatives led by what it sees as a U.S.-dominated Afghan government, Russia invited China, India, Iran, and Pakistan to a parallel set of talks in Moscow beginning in December 2016. Afghanistan, along with the Central Asian states, accepted an invitation to a subsequent session of these “Moscow format” talks, but the United States declined to join. Russia announced on July 16 that it would invite the Taliban to join such talks in Russia “before the end of the summer,” causing consternation in both Kabul and Washington, which insist that the “Afghan-led” process they support is the only legitimate one.
At the Iranian embassy, a peace movement banner proclaimed, “To the people of Iran! Your government is equipping militant groups in Afghanistan.” Referring to a dispute over cross-border river basins, another said, “Our water is saving your life, but your government is taking our lives.” After 9/11, Iran cooperated with the United States to oust the Taliban, but its relations with them have warmed as tensions have risen with Washington. Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour spent several weeks as a guest of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the spring of 2016 before being killed by an American drone that May. Subjects of discussion reportedly included Iranian support to the Taliban in opposition to their common enemies, ISIS and the United States. Since 2007, when U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney threatened Iran from an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, Tehran’s doctrine has been to respond to a U.S. attack on Iran by striking American targets wherever it can reach them. So far, Iran has not had occasion to retaliate against the United States in Afghanistan, but recent press reports allege that since U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iranian nuclear deal in May, Tehran has upped aid to the Taliban, increasing its capacity to launch reprisals against U.S. forces.
In the past, similar combinations of interethnic tension and geopolitical rivalry have led to state collapse and civil war. But alternative outcomes are possible. The United States and NATO still maintain nearly 16,000 troops in the country, and Washington pays an estimated $45 billion per year to keep things running. Regional and global powers perceive a much greater cost to continued conflict in Afghanistan than they did in 1992, when the collapse of the Soviet Union precipitated the collapse of the Soviet-backed Afghan government. Today, however, both the threat of terrorism and the economic growth and concomitant strategic shifts of China and India have made the stability and connectivity of continental Eurasia into priorities for those rising powers.
For instance, the signature program of Chinese President Xi Jinping is the Belt and Road Initiative (B&R), a network of infrastructure for communications, energy, trade, and transport ranging from western China across Eurasia to Europe, and through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to the Indian Ocean. B&R aims at both projecting influence abroad and maintaining high growth rates at home. Whether or not it succeeds, China needs stability in Afghanistan to secure its investments across the region.
Terrorism and economic growth have made the stability of central Eurasia into a priority for China and India.
India also has a growing interest in Afghan stability. Blocked by Pakistan from access to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and beyond, India has signed agreements with Afghanistan and Iran to develop the Iranian port of Chabahar, on the Gulf of Oman, and link it by road and rail to Afghanistan and then to a north-south corridor through Central Asia, sponsored by India and Russia. Japan, concerned about Chinese naval expansion in the Indian Ocean, has joined the consortium. For India, Chabahar opens the route to Eurasia; for China, which has discussed building a railroad with India across northern Afghanistan linking B&R to Chabahar, the project provides a potential outlet to the Indian Ocean free of the threats posed by Baluch insurgents to the Chinese-built port in Gwadar, Pakistan. For Iran, the project could make the country a strategic node between Indian and Chinese mega-projects, and for land-locked Afghanistan it provides a much-needed alternative to its current dependence on the Pakistani port of Karachi for access to the high seas.
The Trump administration’s push to reinstate sanctions on Iran conflicts with these efforts. U.S. officials have promised the Indians that they will apply an exception in the Iranian sanctions law “for reconstruction assistance or economic development for Afghanistan” to Chabahar. Even if implemented, however, such an exception would be unlikely to reassure companies that do business with the United States, including major European and Indian firms, that participation in the Chabahar project will not run afoul of U.S. sanctions.
Faced with Trump’s erratic policies, China is redrawing the strategic map. In response to the U.S. effort to form an Indo-Pacific bloc, Xi has reached out to India. In response, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has distanced himself from U.S. depictions of the Indo-Pacific bloc as targeting China. At an informal summit in Wuhan in May 2018, the two leaders agreed to calm disputes and work on Chinese-Indian joint economic projects in Afghanistan, including the railroad connecting B&R to Chabahar. Such a project would give India and China a joint stake in the stability of Afghanistan.
These unprecedented efforts at regional cooperation have also extended to counterterrorism. On July 11 the intelligence chiefs of China, Iran, Pakistan, and Russia met in Islamabad to discuss taking “coordinated steps” against “ISIS terrorism” in Afghanistan. According to a Russian spokesperson, they also “stressed the need for a more active inclusion of regional powers in the efforts” to end the war in Afghanistan.
The reflex in Washington may be to dismiss the claim by “official sources in Islamabad” that the meeting was “not targeted against” the United States. Even if it was, diplomatic jujitsu may use it in service of U.S. interests. These states may finally have figured out that the real threat posed by Afghanistan’s dependence on the United States is not that Washington will use its Afghan bases to threaten other states in the region but that the United States will inevitably tire of the effort to maintain stability in Afghanistan and withdraw, leaving the region with a challenge it is ill prepared to face.
On the U.S. embassy wall, the Helmand peace marchers hung a banner saying:
People of America! You promised us Afghans comprehensive security, but to this day you have not delivered peace and security.
The United States made no such promise—it came to Afghanistan to fight the terrorists who attacked it on 9/11—and the Trump administration’s recent expressions of interest in a political settlement should not distract from the fact that counterterrorism remains the United States’ top priority in the country. Counterterrorism, however, is no longer the United States’ top global security concern. The administration’s December 2017 National Security Strategy makes terrorism a tertiary concern after the threats posed by “the revisionist powers of China and Russia” and “the rogue states of Iran and North Korea.” The deployment of 16,000 troops and expenditure of $45 billion per year in Afghanistan may no longer accord with U.S. defense priorities.
Pentagon officials now worry that Trump may “be itching to pull the plug on the [U.S.] mission” in Afghanistan if it doesn’t show results soon. The Trump strategy’s most vaunted distinction from that of President Barack Obama was the absence of a timeline for withdrawal, intended to signal to the Taliban that “they cannot wait us out.” Now there may be no timeline, but a specter is haunting the mission: that of the president’s Twitter. The result is an unprecedented interest in a political settlement. In a June 16 statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made explicit the United States’ willingness to place its troop deployment on the table for negotiation, addressing the Taliban’s primary demand. Although the administration denies that it has reversed position by offering to talk to the Taliban directly, it did just that when Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells met the Taliban political commission in Doha, Qatar, in late July of this year.
In direct talks, the United States can offer guarantees of its willingness to negotiate its military presence, as the Soviet Union did in the Geneva Accords of 1988. The Taliban want international sanctions against them lifted and their office in Doha recognized, in return for which the United States may demand an explicit and practical repudiation of international terrorism and commitments to reduce violence. Since their first post-9/11 meeting with the United States in Munich on November 29, 2010, the Taliban have insisted that such understandings with the United States are a necessary prelude to negotiations with the government and other Afghans.
A domestic settlement in Afghanistan will require more than negotiations between the government and the Taliban. It will require Afghans of all ethnic groups and genders from across the political spectrum to renegotiate the pact codified in the 2001 Bonn Agreement, the 2004 constitution, and the 2014 Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, which provides the legal basis for the continuing troop presence in Afghanistan.
The United States’ decision to exclude the Taliban from Bonn and the constitutional process fed the insurgency by denying a voice to a political force that could stage a comeback with support from Pakistan and communities suffering from civilian casualties and abuse by those in power. A lasting settlement will need to repatriate Taliban leaders from Pakistan, as Khyber said, and integrate them into society, politics, and the security forces. That will in turn require dismantling a counterterrorism apparatus designed to treat them like al Qaeda. Integrating them into the security forces is likely to be the hardest challenge, and one in which the United States, as principal sponsor of the Afghan National Security and Defense Forces, will, ironically, have to play a leading role.
The Afghan constitution that came out of the Bonn process left in place the centralized, autocratic structures of governance that the country had inherited from the nineteenth century, in which virtually every official in the country is appointed directly or indirectly by the head of state, whether a hereditary monarch or an elected president. This was inevitable in a rushed transition forced by the U.S. response to 9/11, which left little time for reflection and for which no one was prepared. But the old structures can hardly respond to the social and political changes of the past forty years. This centralization has also served as an obstacle to a settlement with the Taliban, driving opposition to the peace process on the part of non-Pashtun ethnic groups, who fear bringing the Taliban into a government without adequate protections for diversity. The pact that formed the National Unity Government in September 2014 included an as-yet unfulfilled commitment to address issues of centralization and power sharing by convening a constitutional assembly, or loya jirga. That same mechanism could also include the Taliban.
As Iqbal Khyber said, “At first, the people liked the presence of [U.S.] forces.” It was the U.S. intervention that gave Afghanistan a chance to pause the decades of war. That pause has ended, however, and some of both the Afghan population and the country’s neighbors reject a security system based on a long-term bilateral agreement between the United States and an Afghan government it overwhelmingly finances and influences. A withdrawal of U.S. troops alone is hardly the answer, since the Afghan state will need financial and security assistance for decades. But the relative stability needed for Afghanistan to reduce its external dependence will require developing a new regional consensus to replace the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention and the U.S.-Soviet modus vivendi of the Cold War.
Such a transition will require the assistance of the UN as well as regional organizations. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation may provide symbolism, but the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is more likely to provide the UN with a lasting political partner for stabilization. The SCO has expanded beyond its original core of Russia, post-Soviet Central Asian states, and China to include India and Pakistan as members and Afghanistan and Iran as observers. A redesigned international military force, preferably with U.S. participation or leadership, could remain in the country to help to implement both a peace agreement and a counterterrorism strategy in partnership with the UN and the SCO. Such an arrangement would require the United States to decide whether basing troops in Afghanistan is a means to an end or a strategic objective in itself. Cooperation with the region depends on a clear decision that the United States does not seek permanent bases.
A multilateral framework including both China and India is more likely to restrain Pakistan than intermittent pressure from a distracted United States. Russia has opposed Afghanistan’s membership in the SCO as long as its government is so dependent on the United States, but should accept it in return for a recognized role for the SCO in the region’s security architecture. A process involving the SCO should obviate Moscow’s parallel set of talks. The common interest in economic connectivity and cooperation can provide the power of attraction to hold the arrangement together. States and organizations that bear responsibility for a process are less likely to undermine it or allow it to fail.
A U.S. administration that cannot cooperate with Canada, Mexico, NATO, and the EU, or decide whether Russia is a partner for peace or an existential threat, may lack the clarity and finesse to both negotiate a settlement with the Taliban and the Afghan government and help build a regional security order with the UN and SCO. No amount of clarity or finesse could guarantee these goals, but their pursuit can serve as a guide. As President Eisenhower said, “plans are useless, but planning is everything.” If not the Trump administration, then a successor may yet keep the promise Afghans imagine they heard.
CORRECTION APPENDED (August 6, 2018): An earlier version of this article referred to a video of Pashto-speaking soldiers abusing members of Qaisari's protection team. The soldiers were speaking Dari, not Pashto. We regret the error.