The New Cold War
America, China, and the Echoes of History
Negotiations to end the long-running war between Afghanistan’s central government and the Taliban slowly inch along, punctuated by spasms of violence. The Taliban and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) often lash out with attacks on the Afghan security forces and civilians, with the ISKP frequently targeting Shiite communities. Any settlement will likely require the United States to withdraw most combat troops from the country. U.S. President Donald Trump is eager to leave Afghanistan after nearly two decades and plans to review several options for drawing down troop levels, something that could easily happen by the end of the year.
A reduced American presence could provide Iran with an opening to expand its influence in Afghanistan. Tehran has long been wary of instability in its eastern neighbor—decades of conflict have driven hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees into Iran—and so far has refrained from taking the kinds of intrusive actions there that it has in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen where its proxies operate. But Iran will now have more room for maneuver and might be tempted to intervene in Afghan affairs more forcefully, both to protect its own domestic interests and to undermine those of the United States.
Tehran and Washington have butted heads in many parts of the Middle East, but they share common objectives in Afghanistan. Iran supported U.S. efforts following the invasion in late 2001, helping build the coalition that would replace the Taliban in Kabul. In early negotiations after the invasion, Iranian officials insisted on the importance of holding democratic elections in the post-Taliban era. Today, neither Iran nor the United States has any desire to see ISKP grow stronger in the country.
Iran requires stability in Afghanistan. The two countries share a porous border, and the consequences of turmoil in Afghanistan often spill over into Iranian territory. Iran is home to hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees; it is also a key avenue for the smuggling of opioids to Europe. The two countries came to the brink of war at the height of the Taliban’s rule in the late 1990s when, in September 1998, the Taliban killed several Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif. Iran’s leaders vowed revenge and deployed thousands of troops to the border region.
Lingering distrust of the Taliban informs Iranian thinking about the outcome of the intra-Afghan discussions at this stage. Tehran fears the most hardcore elements of the Taliban and wants these factions, which are often close to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to remain far from power in a new central government. The most hard-line elements of the predominantly Sunni Taliban, while perhaps not as zealous as the ISKP, are poorly disposed to Iran, the region’s Shiite heavyweight—and the feeling is mutual. Nonetheless, if working with a central government in Kabul that contains elements of the Taliban will help Tehran safeguard its essential interests, Tehran is willing to do so. Indeed, in recent years Iran has tried to repair and strengthen its relationship with some factions of the Taliban through economic, diplomatic, and security initiatives.
Lingering distrust of the Taliban informs Iran's thinking about intra-Afghan negotiations.
Iran’s main political and economic interests in Afghanistan include maintaining access to the Afghan market for Iranian goods and guarding against instability along its border. The Iranian economy is still suffering from the effects of U.S. sanctions and from the disruptions of the COVID-19 crisis. Officials worry that chaos in Afghanistan might push another wave of refugees across the border and that Iran will not be able to afford the disruption. COVID-19 has exacerbated long-standing hardship and poverty among refugees in Iran who already struggled for access to employment and health care. Iran has deported thousands of Afghans, but more violence could lead to a new influx. Therefore, Iran largely favors the status quo, which at least provides a modicum of stability that allows Tehran to focus on other priorities deemed more urgent, especially as the country grapples with another strong wave of novel coronavirus infections and record-high daily death tolls.
There are, however, circumstances under which Iran may feel compelled to intervene in Afghan affairs. Tehran might do so if it finds unacceptable the central government that comes into place in Kabul after a negotiated settlement, one in which, for example, hard-line factions of the Taliban play a leading role and seek to challenge Iranian interests in Afghanistan.
In that case, Iran could deploy troops in western Afghanistan to serve as a buffer against any wider turmoil. Iran may also want to act if the Afghan government proves unable to effectively suppress the ISKP and the Islamist militant group continues to pose a direct threat to Iranian interests as well as to Shiite communities. In that case, Iranian leaders may come to the conclusion that its militias can better secure important sites and roll back the ISKP than Afghan security forces can.
If Iran does decide to further insert itself into Afghan affairs, it has potent instruments with which to do so. The new commander of Iran’s expeditionary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force, Brigadier General Esmail Qaani, has long experience in Afghanistan, where he played an operational role in recruiting Afghans to fight for Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and to fight the Taliban in the 1990s. Iran provided intelligence and proxy support for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and backed the process that followed to replace the Taliban with a national unity government. Qaani has deep knowledge of the workings of the Iranian-Afghan border from combating drug traffickers, smugglers, and other criminal groups. This experience provides Qaani with an understanding of instability in the region and the threats along the border and also a sharper sense of when circumstances might require more forceful Iranian action.
But perhaps the more likely means for Iranian intervention is a paramilitary force that Tehran has deployed elsewhere to great effect. Iran has done an impressive job of raising battalions of Shiite foreign fighters to join the war in Syria. Many of these recruits come from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Afghan fighters are organized into the Liwa Fatemiyoun, a force of between 10,000 and 15,000 men that has seen combat in Aleppo, Damascus, Latakia, and the Qalamoun region.
With the conflict in Syria potentially winding down, Iran could redeploy Afghan Shiite fighters to Afghanistan to extend its reach throughout the region or to check significant escalation from the ISKP. The terrorist group has the ability to conduct spectacular and awful violence, including horrific attacks in May that targeted a funeral procession and a maternity ward. At the moment, its fighters have remained mostly consigned to the eastern part of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, far from Iran—but if that were to change, so too would Tehran’s calculus. The Islamic State (ISIS) has proven it is both willing and capable of launching attacks on Iranian soil, as the group did in July 2017.
With operations in Syria winding down, Iran could redeploy Afghan Shiite fighters to Afghanistan.
Proxy forces are central to Iran’s foreign policy and grand strategy. The Quds Force has successfully cultivated relationships with forces throughout the Middle East, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in Yemen. Iranian leaders are still smarting from the U.S. killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani in early January, and they could very well decide to open a front against Washington in Afghanistan. Iran might seek to orchestrate a string of attacks to both speed the withdrawal and make it seem that Iran played a larger role in forcing the United States to retreat. The attacks could be sporadic and target U.S. supply and logistical lines used to facilitate the withdrawal, evoking images of U.S. troops leaving Vietnam or Somalia and providing Iran with a propaganda victory. Tehran could use Afghan Shiite militias as proxies in order to distance itself from overtly hostile actions. Through the Liwa Fatemiyoun and other militias, Iran could complicate U.S. interests in Afghanistan by instigating attacks against remaining U.S. assets and local partners, or—more likely—it could help secure parts of Afghanistan, boost its own sway in the country, and in so doing further erode Washington’s already waning influence.
Iran has spent billions of dollars to arm, train, and pay thousands of foreign fighters in Syria, including Afghans. Qaani’s most important task as Soleimani’s replacement will be managing the IRGC-QF’s relationship with these forces. His experience with Afghan Shiite fighters suggests that these militants in particular could be poised to play a more prominent role in Iran’s foreign policy. Whatever the shape of the future government in Kabul, Tehran will keep a wary eye on its eastern border—where it may come to the conclusion that the best form of defense is intervention.
A Dangerous Asymmetry Lies at the Heart of the Afghan Peace Deal