As Western nations continue to debate the future of Afghanistan, particularly the U.S. and its future there, Iran and Russia have been carving out a place for themselves in the country. Seizing upon the uncertainty of future U.S. policy, particularly when the Trump administration has shown it is willing to upend previous U.S. policy in the region, Iran and Russia have been expanding their ties with the Taliban and weakening the country’s Western-backed government.
Tensions have flared between the three countries over issues with Iran’s ballistic missile tests earlier this year and Iran and Russia’s roles in Syria’s civil war. As the three countries now seem to be butting heads in Afghanistan, experts worry that chances for peace could be in jeopardy.
In the past, neither the Bush or Obama administration could come up with a clear strategic plan and the patience needed to stabilize Afghanistan and reduce the internal security challenges that country faces, thus putting the Afghan government in the position of handling its own security. Under the Bush administration, the focus was shifted to Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from a lack of resources and unresolved structural problems.
Obama wanted to get the U.S. out of Afghanistan and it meant that timelines were put in place with efforts that didn’t produce the outcomes the administration hoped for. In the meantime, the Taliban continued to grow more robust and deepen its roots, even as other terrorist groups also moved in. Thus, U.S. support couldn’t be withdrawn and the Trump administration has now inherited the question of U.S. presence in Afghanistan moving forward.
The Afghan government remains weak and critically dependent on foreign support in a variety of areas, including politically, economically and militarily. A total withdraw of the U.S. troops could potentially be the start of a civil war.
The Taliban is benefiting from support coming from outside the country. Russia is also openly challenging the U.S., as it sees the U.S. bases in the country a threat to Russia’s sphere of influence they are trying to resurrect within the region.
Russia is starting to take a larger lead in the country as well, hosting high-level talks on the country’s future with Iranian, Chinese and Pakistani diplomats. The U.S. has not confirmed if it will attend.
While the relationship between Shiite Iran and a Sunni Taliban seems to be unlikely, both Iran and Russia have played on both sides of the Afghanistan conflict. Iran was one of the chief benefactors from the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance after the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001.
“Neighboring Iran is providing support to the Taliban while also engaging the Afghan government over issues of water rights, trade and security,” said General John W. Nicholson, Jr., Commander of United States Forces in Afghanistan, during a Senate hearing in early February on Afghanistan.
“Iran is worried that with American troops in Afghanistan, the two militaries will end up confronting each other,” said Mohammad Akram Arefi, an Iranian-educated professor of politics at Kateb University in Kabul. “Iran also wants to revive its power in the region by having influence over Afghanistan. And with America here, they can’t have the type of influence that they want.”
The reality is that Russia and Iran could raise the stakes in Afghanistan as a response to conflict with the U.S. in other regions, particularly in the Middle East. But there are also signs that Iranian advisers have been present on battlefields in the country, although that claim could not be verified. There are real fears that it could become another battleground for world powers, such as Syria has become.
“We are worried that Afghanistan will become another Syria, with world powers confronting each other here,” said Gul Ahmad Azami, an Afghan senator from the Farah province. He is familiar with Iran, as his province lies on its border. He has been briefed on reports that show weapons are being transported into the country from Iran, in part to gain the allegiance of local commanders.
“The relationship between Afghanistan, the United States, and NATO has been very strong,” said Mohammad Nateqi, an adviser at the office of Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. “But if there are bad relations between Iran, the United States, and Russia, it will be very dangerous for us.”
The international community is concerned as Iran has continued to increase its influence in the Middle East, but it is also apparent that Iran is looking to move beyond that region. With the support of Russia, it is possible that Iran is looking at another place to increase its power on the international stage.