Hesamoddin Hojjatzadeh

Iran, Russia and Taliban: Reassessing Future of Afghan Government

Date of publication : December 12, 2017 23:14 pm
Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and Russia's Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (L-R in the middle) meet ahead of a session of the Council of the Heads of Government of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) member states on December 1, 2017 in Sochi, Russia

The situation in today's Afghanistan looks more complicated than ever before and its complication is rising on a daily basis. On the one hand, incessant military attacks and widespread insecurity caused by the Taliban in Afghanistan and its ally, the Haqqani network, have increased the suffering of Afghans in various parts of the country. On the other hand, militants affiliated with Daesh terrorist group have been carrying out the most brutal attacks and massacring various ethnic and religious minorities, especially Hazara Shias, in Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan since early 2015, which have been reminiscent of the regular massacre of Hazara people by the Taliban regime in the second half of the 1990s. They consider Afghanistan as part of their so-called Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which includes part of Iran, entire Afghanistan, Central Asia, India, and Pakistan.
In the meantime, there are fundamental differences between the Taliban, which in ideological terms are followers of the Salafist Islam and the Dewband school of the Indian Subcontinent, and Daesh militants, who follow the teachings of Saudi muftis and other radical Wahhabi clerics. For example, the leaders of the Taliban still emphasizes the need to establish an Islamic emirate with Afghanistan at its center. However, Daesh’s Khorasan Province, which represents the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East, has announced the establishment of a global extremist state as its main ideal and in this regard is very similar to the ideology announced by the leaders of the al-Qaeda group. For this reason, many analysts believe that the main factor that caused the Taliban group to distance from its ideal, which is the establishment of a Salafist Islamic government in Afghanistan, was its close relations with al-Qaeda. Another differential point between the Taliban and Daesh is their approach to Shia people and other ethnic and religious minorities. From the viewpoint of the Taliban, the rights of Shias and other minorities must be respected in order to pave the way for their integration in the plural and multiethnic Afghan society and create a diverse society. Of course, the Taliban group, which is fighting against the government in Kabul, has not succeeded in enforcing such a viewpoint in practice, but at last on paper, it claims to have different views form Daesh in this regard.
The main point is that no practical coalition has been formed between the Taliban and other opponents of Daesh in Afghanistan. This is why on the one hand, occasional terrorist attacks by Daesh in Afghanistan continue to happen, while on the other hand, Daesh’s ISKP is trying to attract local forces of the Taliban and their foreign allies, such as the Taliban in Pakistan and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). This trend started after the official announcement of the demise of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the founder of the Taliban in Afghanistan, in the middle of 2013. It gained more strength throughout 2013 and in early 2014, when increasing differences over choosing Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour as Mullah Omar’s successor caused an increasing number of the Taliban militants to join the Afghanistan branch of Daesh.
However, Mullah Akhtar Mohamad Mansour was later killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan’s Balochistan Province in May 2016 and Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada was chosen as his successor and has been accepted as the leader of the group by most of its members. As a result, military confrontations between the Taliban and the Afghan branch of Daesh have been escalating in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province and sometimes in Zabul Province. At the same time, the leadership of the Taliban has succeeded in attracting Jundallah militant group, which is a splinter group of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that is mostly active in northeast Afghanistan. By attracting the group’s members, the Taliban has been successful in largely preventing further spread of Daesh and its affiliates in Afghanistan toward Central Asia and China.
As a result of these developments, Iran and Russia, as two regional powers, which sway traditional influence in Afghanistan along with Pakistan, China and India, have been accused by Western officials, media and experts that in order to prevent the rising threat of Daesh in Afghanistan they have changed their past approach to the Taliban. Western circles claim that Tehran and Moscow are currently supporting and bolstering this militant group as a proxy group for Iran and Russia in Afghanistan. They claim that Iran and Russia, and to some extent, China, have defined more functions for the Taliban than simply suppressing Daesh in Afghanistan and are trying to use this group as a means to promote their strategic plans across the region. As evidence, they have quoted Mohammad Reza Bahrami, Iran's ambassador to Kabul, who said in an interview with an Afghan media outlet in December 2016 that Iran had only contacts, not the relationship, with the Taliban in order to get information about this group. He added that Tehran swayed intelligence control over Taliban’s moves, noting that from the viewpoint of Iran, the Taliban was still a terrorist group. So, what are the plans that Western circles talk about? These alleged plans include an effort to prevent the further influence of the United States and some of its powerful European allies, like Britain, in Afghanistan through the NATO-led military coalition, which is operating in this country, and also to prevent further strengthening of a government in Kabul, which is supported by the West. In addition, Iran has been accused of trying to get close to the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to prevent a sectarian war from being launched in Afghanistan by the Afghan branch of Daesh.
Even if all these accusations were true, which is not the case, the Islamic Republic of Iran has not achieved much with regard to all the aforesaid goals while the American and NATO forces have been widely present in various parts of Afghanistan. On the other hand, the national unity government of Afghanistan, more than being upset about the Taliban and their occasional attacks, is indignant about the failure of the country’s Western allies in living up to their promises for strengthening Afghan security forces and eradication of deep-rooted corruption in this country. The rising number of terrorist attacks by Daesh in the capital Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan, especially in the past year, and the fact that most of those attacks have targeted Hazara Shias proves that the Taliban has not been able or willing to help them.
The West, especially the United States, has been also accusing Russia of providing arms and financial support to the Taliban in Afghanistan. In order to prove their allegations, Western officials and media alike have cited Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, who said in January 2016 that the interests of the Taliban were common with those of Moscow. Western sources also claim that a four-party meeting among Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and China, which was held in Moscow in November 2016 to explore ways of countering Daesh’s Khorasan Province, was practically aimed at opening doors to bilateral and multilateral talks with the Taliban. They consider this as a prominent sign of the effort made by the Kremlin to establish relations with this militant group without presence or consent of the Afghan government.
One must say that like other powers with influence in Afghanistan, Russia is greatly concerned about the threat posed to its interests in Central Asia as a result of the spread of the Afghan branch of Daesh toward borders of three Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. This is true because the incessant growth of the Salafist and Wahhabi versions of Islam in this region under the cover of such Islamist groups as the ISKP is at odds with Moscow’s policy for supporting secular regimes in Central Asia. However, claims by some Western officials, including General John W. Nicholson, the top United States commander in Afghanistan, who alleged that Russians believed the Taliban was only fighting against Daesh, not the central government in Kabul, are not true. It must be noted that due to the profound political knowledge of the Russian leaders at the Kremlin and in the country’s military and intelligence institutions, and also in view of developments on the ground in Afghanistan, it is not acceptable to claim that Russian officials are so simplistic. In the meantime, this claim is clearly at loggerheads with an allegation by US Secretary of Defense General James Mattis who said in April 2017 that Russia was sending small arms to the Taliban in order to target Afghan National Army forces in northern parts of the country.
At the same time, one must see what tangible and real achievements have different and costly policies and strategies of the United States and its NATO allies had in security and military fields for Afghan people. The approach taken by the former US president, Barack Obama, first led to a sudden rise in the number of American forces in Afghanistan to up to 100,000 in 2009, which was later reduced to below 10,000 in 2014. Neither of these steps had any effect in helping the establishment of peace and stability in Afghanistan and the rest of the region. On the contrary, the years 2011 and 2016 held a record in terms of the quantity of military and civilian casualties after the occupation of Afghanistan in 2001.
On the other hand, most US and Western experts are of the opinion that the new US strategy in Afghanistan, which was unveiled by the sitting US President Donald Trump on August 21, will not be of much help in resolving the current complicated problems with which Afghanistan is grappling. This was evident when Washington took a theatrical step in April 2017 by dropping two huge non-atomic bombs, known as the “Mother of All Bombs (MOAB),” on those regions of Nangarhar Province in southeast Afghanistan, which are known to be dens for Daesh terrorists. The measure not only failed to have any tangible effect by reducing terrorist measures taken by this group in the country but also increased the scope of violence and regular massacre of Afghan people by Daesh terrorists.
Most analysts believe that if the United States decides to implement its new strategy in Afghanistan in a unilateral manner and without an agreement of and direct or indirect consultation with other powers that sway influence in this country, it will only disturb political and security equations in Afghanistan and the entire region. Finally, such an approach will also pave the way for the total collapse of the shaky government that currently rules in Afghanistan.
Last but not least, it seems that a reassessment of the future of the Afghan government must put the highest emphasis on the determining role of the neighboring countries of Afghanistan and regional powers that sway influence in this country, especially Pakistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Russia and China. Therefore, unlike what Trump does, stress must not be merely put on the role that India plays in Afghanistan at the cost of omitting other major actors such as Iran, Russia or China, or by merely threatening Pakistan with economic and political punishments.
© Abrar Moaser Tehran

Hesamoddin Hojjatzadeh, a researcher on South Asia affairs, is the resident fellow at Abrar Moaser Tehran Institute
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