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Iran is considering its next moves in the Afghan war-without-end

Tehran might have secured the eviction of its superpower adversary from Afghanistan—only to discover that in this case, victory holds out the dangers of defeat.

September 25, 2021 / 06:15 PM IST
Taliban fighters in Kabul. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Taliban fighters in Kabul. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Eight months before the Islamic Emirate’s flag flew over Kabul, a small convoy of jeeps, stuffed with assault rifles and bundles of dollars, headed across the parched earth of the Dasht-e Margo, Desert of Death. The Taliban were waiting: the consignment, despatched by Iran’s intelligence services to the militia of Allahuddin Khan had been betrayed. The Taliban pushed forward troops and artillery to the border, and sent a stern message to Tehran: “we are fully prepared to go inside Iran and fight”.

The first blows in Tehran’s long, murderous secret war to overthrow the Taliban—a war it had long sought to avoid—had been exchanged.

A month after the rise of the second Islamic Emirate, Tehran’s early triumphalism has given way to apprehension. Iran’s new president, Ibrahim Raisi, had cheered the United States’ “military defeat and withdrawal”; now, with America out, the influential Shi’a cleric Grand Ayatollah Safi Golpaygani, has cautioned against “trusting a militia with a record of malice and murder”, while former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has warned of the Taliban’s expansionist ambitions.

Tehran might have secured the eviction of its superpower adversary from Afghanistan—only to discover that in this case, victory holds out the dangers of defeat. The dilemma Iran now confronts, history shows, is disturbingly familiar.

Iran’s growing pessimism isn’t hard to understand. Large-scale evictions of Hazara—a constituency long cultivated by Tehran—have been reported, allegedly by Taliban commanders with links to Kuchi nomads who have long eyed these lands. Ethnic Hazaras, and Tajiks in the Panjsher valley, have also been subjected to large-scale killings. Taliban leaders simply ignored Iran’s demands to end their assault on Panjsher.

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In spite of Tehran’s aid to the Taliban insurgency, moreover, there are no signs that the Taliban are willing to consider a power-sharing deal that would give Iran’s clients in Afghanistan a share of power. Even Taliban  commanders considered close to Iran, like Zakir Qayyum, have been given only low-grade ministerial offices.

There’s no sign, either, that the Taliban is severing its links with jihadists hostile to Iran and the wider Shi’a world, like al-Qaeda.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Iran was occupied on its west. Egged on by the United States and Saudi Arabia, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had attacked Iran in 1980. An Iranian counter-offensive evicted Iraqi troops from its territory by 1982. Instead of using the opportunity to make terms with Hussein, though, the clerics who led Iran dragged the country into six more years of war.

Even in the midst of this crisis, though, Iran began crafting a response. “The most revealing aspect of Iran’s Afghan policy was not what Iran did,” the scholar Mohsen Milani has perceptively pointed out, “but what Iran did not do”.

Although it was strongly critical of the Soviet intervention, Iran chose to stay away from the United States-Saudi axis funding the mujahideen groups arrayed against the Soviet Union. In spite of his ideological hostility to Soviet communism, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme ruler, saw Saudi-funded Islamism—“America’s Islam”, he derisively called it—as a fundamental threat.

In response, Tehran reached out to historically oppressed communities like the Hazaras and Qizilbash, providing the finance and military resources which allowed them to coalesce into a disciplined and cohesive force by 1987.

This card, Tehran played adroitly. Iran’s decision to remain away from the anti-Soviet axis in Afghanistan was reciprocated by Moscow, which gave little support for Tudeh party communists fighting against the regime in Tehran. The Soviets also limited arms supplies to Iraq, and maintained a light footprint in the Hazarat region of Afghanistan, the stronghold of the country’s Shi’a communities.

Iran appeared well-poised to dominate Afghanistan’s political life in April, 1992, when ethnic-Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Masud, along with the ethnic Uzbek Abdul Rashid Dostum, formed an alliance with several Shi’a groups to take power in Kabul. Ethnic strains, combined with communal Shi’a-Sunni strains and warlordism, soon led this alliance to fall apart, though.

From at least 1994, the contours of the challenge to Iranian influence began to unfold. That year, terrorists bombed the shrine of Imam Reza in Meshad, a key centre of the Shi’a faith; 26 people were killed. Although Iran officially blamed the opposition Mujahideen-e-Khalq for the attack, there was reason—even at the time—to suspect it was carried out by al-Qaeda.

Even worse, from Iran’s point of view, the Taliban emerged to sweep aside the coalition it had crafted in Kabul. In 1995, the Iran-backed Hizb-e Wahadat leader Abdul Ali Mazari, under siege from Masud’s armies, struck a deal with the Taliban. The deal ended badly—Mazari was, by some possibly apocryphal accounts, flung out alive from a helicopter after being tortured—but the Taliban ascendance proved unstoppable. The warlord Ismail Khan surrendered to the Taliban—as he did last month—and Herat fell.

Islamabad—with the quiet backing of the United States and Saudi Arabia—threw their weight behind the Taliban. The strategic reasoning for American support wasn’t hard to understand: even if the Taliban harboured al-Qaeda, it stood for the eviction of Iran and Russia from the region. Zalmay Khalilzad, later the United States’ special representative on Afghanistan, admitted in 1996 that there were “common interests between the United States and the Taliban”.

Following a crucial battle in 1997, the capital of the Iran-backed Northern Alliance, Mazar-e-Sharif, finally fell. Ethnic Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek civilians were massacred. Eight Iranian diplomats were also kidnapped, and later murdered, by the Taliban.

Iran responded by massing over 200,000 troops on its eastern borders, and lashed out at both the Taliban and Afghanistan. The country’s top leadership, though, saw little profit in intervention. Iran’s top Ayatollahs, Ali Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani, backed president Mohammad Khatami’s decision not to go to war. “Afghanistan is like a swamp,” Rafsanjani is said to have warned, “anyone can fall into it, but a few can get out of it safely and undamaged.”

The lesson for the Taliban was simple: Iran’s threats were, ultimately, empty. Through the brief life of the first Islamic Emirate, until 9/11, it pursued resolutely anti-Iran policies, even blocking the waters of the Helmand river.

Following 9/11, Iran cooperated with the United States’ war in Afghanistan, aiding the campaign against al-Qaeda’s leadership. Iran also sought, through Swiss diplomats, to craft a grand bargain, which would trade-off long-term counter-terrorism and geopolitical cooperation in return for an end to United States sanctions, imposed in 1979. The government of the US President George Bush, though, designated Iran part of an “axis of evil”. Fearing its regime would be targeted for annihilation, Iran responded by slowly escalating support for the Taliban.

Tehran understands the dangers ahead. Islamist terror groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, nested under the Taliban’s wing, have long been active in the Sistan-Baluchistan province, operating from across the Afghan and Pakistan border. In Iraq and Syria, moreover, Iran found itself forced into fighting gruelling anti-terror campaigns against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. For Tehran, these forces constitute an irreducible existential threat.

Iran, moreover, has long faced the consequences of state collapse in Afghanistan: massive refugee flows, and a tidal wave of heroin which has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of young people in the country.

To act, however, would come with its own consequences. Iran is better positioned to fight an anti-terrorist campaign than it was during the first Islamic Emirate—its Fatemiyoun and Zainabiyoun militia, which include thousands of Afghan Shi’a, helped crush the Islamic State in Iraq. Yet, a long war would mean more crisis in the region, with unpredictable consequences for Iran itself. The country fears that, like the United States, it could crush the Taliban—yet be mired in a hopeless morass.

For Iran, then, the end of the Afghan war is nowhere in sight: as it weighs its next moves, it knows many more Acts of this savage theatre lie ahead before the curtain finally falls.
Praveen Swami

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