Taliban transformation * or deceptive tactics?
The US fiasco in Afghanistan, in which a 300,000-strong American-trained and equipped Afghan army collapsed in a matter of hours, indicates the limitations of American power. America will undoubtedly be forced to abandon many of its commitments in the region. The time has come to consider what lessons should be learned from the experience of the American occupation of Afghanistan.
Tehran is perhaps one of the most interested parties in the peaceful development of events in neighboring Afghanistan. In the years leading up to the US invasion, the Taliban had a tense relationship with Iran. The confrontation escalated to the point that the Iranian government and IRGC forces actually aided American forces after the 2001 US invasion.
This was partly due to the enmity between Iran and the Russian-banned Taliban *, but to a greater extent – Tehran’s fears of exacerbating relations with America in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Over time, however, Iranian strategy has changed. Iran did not stop the Taliban from increasing pressure on American troops.
After the emergence in 2015 of a branch of the banned in Russia IS * in Afghanistan (“Vilayat Khorasan”), Tehran found another area for cooperation with the Taliban: containing the extreme supporters of jihad, which served as a threat to Iranian borders. At the end of 2018, Iran for the first time confirmed that it was hosting a Taliban delegation for negotiations on its territory. At the same time, the Afghan government was aware of the meeting.
Since the departure of President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban takeover of Kabul, several Iranian officials have welcomed the collapse of the puppet government and demonstrated a positive attitude towards the Taliban. At the moment, Iran does not rule out a peaceful outcome of events in Afghanistan and the formation of a government in Kabul with which it can have normal relations.
Taliban officials have pledged to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a staging ground for fighting any of its neighbors, which is crucial for Iran, which has multiple interests in Afghanistan, while the Taliban need allies abroad.
Iran, home to 3 million Afghans, is expecting a new wave of migration. The Iranian authorities have introduced a special regime on a number of sections of the Iranian-Afghan border. Migrant camps have been set up in three provinces bordering Afghanistan.
Many Afghans living in Iran – both registered refugees and economic migrants – fear for relatives and friends who remain in Afghanistan. More than 1,200 Iranian and Afghan activists have addressed a letter to the UN, other international actors, heads of state and government, asking them to “take responsible measures” to ensure peace in Afghanistan, to protect the rights of its people, especially women.
It should not be forgotten that Shiite Iran has a moral obligation to the Shiite community of Afghanistan to protect it from any sectarian violence. At the moment, the Taliban have promised not to infringe on the rights of Shiites.
The Iranians do not lose sight of the external allies of the Taliban, who are confronting Tehran, primarily Saudi Arabia. The Taliban was also financed by Riyadh, and the Saudis may have a goal in the new Afghanistan to foment a conflict between the Taliban and Iran.
When the Taliban were in power in Afghanistan for the first time (1996-2001), Saudi Arabia was one of three states that officially recognized the government of this Islamist group. The other two were Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). All these years, Riyadh has remained one of the most important allies of the Taliban, especially in terms of funding. The kingdom was also on the UN list of countries suspected of supplying arms to the Taliban in circumvention of the international arms embargo.
However, the relationship was not always allied. In 1998, the Saudis asked the Taliban to extradite Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Afghanistan. The Taliban refused. This led to a significant deterioration in relations. The events of September 2001 accelerated the collapse of the alliance, Saudi Arabia and the UAE severed all ties with Afghanistan, where the Taliban then ruled.
Now Riyadh will fear that the Taliban will allow al-Qaeda to conduct anti-Saudi activities from Afghan territory. Al Qaeda militants are already celebrating the “historic defeat” of the United States.
Israel, another Iranian adversary, hopes to benefit “indirectly” from a Taliban victory in its confrontation with Tehran. And, apparently, the formation of the Taliban government by the Sunni movement with a religious-fundamentalist ideology does not bode well for the Shiite regime in Tehran.
An increase in drug trafficking from Afghanistan, an influx of Afghan refugees to Iran, and a worsening of the socio-economic situation there are also predicted. In this regard, Israel allows for the expansion of cooperation with Sunni states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait.
However, it is likely that the increased instability in the Middle East will not benefit the Jewish state. The Taliban’s victory is encouraging for Palestinian resistance groups, whose leaders draw parallels between the Taliban’s struggle against the puppet regime in Kabul and their struggle against Israel. Like the defeat of the pro-American government in Kabul, the moderate leaders of the Palestinian Authority may be defeated in the confrontation with Islamist groups within the Palestinian movement.
Much depends on how the Taliban behave. Their initial statements are distinguished by a certain pragmatism, a willingness to compromise, and the consciousness that the country they lost 20 years ago has changed. The Taliban have announced an amnesty for all civil servants and called on soldiers from the former army to join its military. Taliban leaders talk about forming a coalition government, allowing girls to go to school and allowing women to stay at work if veiled. Whether this is evidence of movement transformation or a deceiving tactic to break out of isolation remains to be seen.
Cover photo: Shiite procession in Kabul, August 2021.
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