US President Obama’s declaration on Afghanistan that “We are going to stay there until the job is done,” does little to reassure regional allies that American interests in the region can be promoted. Conversely, the proposed troop withdrawal in 2011 would embolden a new regional power- a possibly nuclear-armed Iran.
Iran was engaged in supporting (with Russia and India) the Northern Alliance, a group that displaced the Taliban. Iran’s role in the region has been conflicting, including the initial support to the American plans in Afghanistan post 9/11. Initial cooperation however unfortunately soon unraveled.
Invading armies have never successfully conquered Afghanistan, which has become notorious for its reputation as the ‘graveyard of empires’. However, regional players have managed to take dominant influencing positions on the governments in the country. From the time of Soviet influence over the country, to the more recent Pakistan-Saudi combine in the form of the Taliban, Afghanistan is presently stretched between the interests of its neighbours and the United States.
Afghanistan’s strategic importance lies in its transit point for energy rich states in Central Asia. For example, the trans-Afghan Oil pipeline by American company Unocol proposed to transport oil from Azerbaijan and Central Asia through Afghanistan to Pakistan or India. Iran seeks to rival this and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI), with its own pipeline through Pakistan and India and possibly China (IPI-C).
Iranian energy resources garnering regional support against the United States is a cause of concern for Washington, which has attempted to utilize its influence in Afghanistan to push forward alternatives to the Iranian gas, with limited success. For example, invoking the Libya Sanctions Act against Indian companies that conduct business activities in the US, forced them to abandon projects in Iran. However, India continues to evince interest in the IPI project.
Iran has allegedly played a deceitful role in Afghanistan to push forward its energy and hegemonic interests. For example, it is reported that despite being publicly allied against the Taliban, senior Taliban official Khirullah Said Wali Khairkhwa met Iranian officials in November 2001, gaining assurances of support against the US invasion of Afghanistan. Weapons seizures and testimonies of captured fighters too have collaborated allegations that Tehran is fuelling the insurgency in Afghanistan. In July 2010, additional documents indicated how Iran supports Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a noted terrorist leader in South Asia.
Iran’s regional interest in Afghanistan has resulted in a massive influx of investment and aid to the country in order to strengthen its presence in the country. It has taken significant measures to infiltrate itself into the political leadership of the country as well, including through Afghanistan’s Vice President Karim Khalili, a Shia Muslim, who is known to be close to Iran. Provinces neighboring Iran such as Herat too has senior government officials who are known to be sympathetic to Iran.
Tehran’s clout over the internal stability of Afghanistan can also be gauged from the potential humanitarian catastrophe, which was averted when Iran did not expel Afghan refugees back as it had threatened in 2007. It is believed that it took the personal intervention of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to soothe matters with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmedinijad, which resolved the matter. Ahmedinijad has taken advantage of this sway even using the opportunity to embarrass Karzai in an official joint press brief in Kabul by questioning American presence in the country.
Scholars have described Iran’s policy in Afghanistan as “managed chaos”. The ploy is to tie down the American military in the state with an insurgency that is supported by both Iran and Pakistan, and ensuring that when the Americans leave, the country is left under the greater influence of Iran. While Pakistan is not collaborating with Iran on Afghanistan, its own end goal wants to see the end of the American presence and the restoration of the Taliban.
This is where Iran’s resourcefulness comes into play. Over the years, Iran and Pakistan have been mending troubled relations, including to the degree of Pakistan prioritizing Iranian aid over Indian aid, and consistently advocating for an energy relationship with Iran. Iran has made significant security inroads into Pakistan, including securing cooperation from its intelligence agency to capture wanted Sunni militant leader Abdolmalek Rigi and also reportedly launching a cross-border operation to rescue a kidnapped Iranian diplomat. These can be seen as indications that Pakistan may acquiesce to an Iranian influence in the region.
Iranian attempts to bolster proxies have met with considerable success in the Middle East, with Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip under Tehran’s stewardship. Alliances with groups such as Hamas have shown tenacity in overcoming ideological rivalries relating to the Shiite-Sunni dispute. Such an alliance with the Taliban cannot be deemed as far-fetched. For the Taliban and allied extremist groups, cooperation with Iran under a nuclear umbrella would be the boon they would be greatly seeking.
Fears of the Shiite ascendancy reaching South Asian shores cannot be ignored, and with Iran’s rise in Afghanistan, the clock may well be turning back with a new regional player at the helm of Afghanistan.