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Western Dream of Regime Change in Iran is Over, so What’s Next?
Western Dream of Regime Change in Iran is Over, so What’s Next?
With the Taliban Back in Kabul, Regional Powers Watch and Wait
With the Taliban Back in Kabul, Regional Powers Watch and Wait

Western Dream of Regime Change in Iran is Over, so What’s Next?

Originally published in Reuters

The signing of the nuclear accord between Iran and the P5+1 answered a question that has bedeviled the U.S.-Iranian relationship for 36 years.

Decades after the 1979 uprising that ousted Washington’s ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi, and led to the 444-day captivity of American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the United States is no longer intent on effecting regime change and settling scores. The nuclear accord signifies a belated acceptance of, and accommodation with, the Islamic Revolution and the clerical order it spawned.

What does this mean for Iran? That a relaxed leadership can now look inward to fix the country’s ailing economy. But what if it also decides to invest further into Iran’s power projection in the region?

First the good news: The accord deserves to be embraced unabashedly as both necessary and sufficient, on moral as well as geostrategic grounds. It isn’t that one can trust either Iran or the United States to implement the deal to the letter, especially once these governments come under new management: Iran holds parliamentary elections in February 2016; the U.S. presidential elections follow in the fall, and Iran’s presidential polls a year later. Nor that Iran can be expected to temper its long-term nuclear aspirations. But any successful effort to reduce or push back the chances of war over the nuclear issue must be warmly applauded, and this particular agreement has two important additional assets: it reflects a rare — and very welcome — international consensus in bewildering times for the globe, and it constitutes a victory of diplomacy over options that are so much worse.

So hurrah! Well done!

Yet it’s fair to ask if now, thanks to this deal, we’re out of the woods. Looking at the Middle East, the answer must be an unequivocal no. This doesn’t make the nuclear deal any less necessary or praiseworthy; failure to reach one would have imperiled more than the Middle East. But it means that concerted efforts will now need to be made to fix a region that is increasingly coming undone, whose conflicts are spilling across borders, and that has generated both a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions and a transnational jihadi threat to which we have yet to find an effective response.

While the talks that led to the nuclear accord — involving the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, Germany and the European Union — were carefully walled off to prevent the intrusion of other pressing concerns, such as the wars in Syria or, more recently, Yemen, they were not merely about the complex technical problem of how to clip Iran’s nuclear wings. For the Obama administration, blocking all possible pathways to a bomb, establishing airtight verification mechanisms, and ensuring sanctions will be snapped back into place if Iran attempts a nuclear breakout together amount to circumscribing Iran’s ascendant power in the region. If fully observed, the deal guarantees that we will be able to tackle, and attempt to settle, conflicts in the Middle East for the next 15 years at a minimum without the shadow of nuclear blackmail — at least by Iran.

This won’t suffice to reduce growing tensions. Yet how seriously should we take the threat that Iran, rather than coming around from decades of isolation, reinforces it by stepping up its entanglements in the Gulf and the Levant? In respect of the latter, Iran’s leaders may find they have little choice, but it’s not as if they have much to cheer about: Tehran’s military backing of the tottering governments of Syria and Iraq is a direct result of its failure to protect these allies from internal upheaval through the use of its soft power.

In Syria, rather than encouraging Bashar Assad to reach out to demonstrators in the uprising’s early days, Tehran supported him when he cracked down. His violent response provoked an escalation into all-out civil war, and his loss of control over most of the country. If he survives today, it is only because of the military role Iran and its ally Hezbollah have played to protect the regime’s core assets. It is difficult to see how Assad could ever rule all of Syria again, or how Iran could maintain its vital link to Lebanon and Hezbollah when the Assad regime collapses — as well it may if Tehran fails to negotiate a transition that would end Assad’s rule while preserving Iran’s own strategic interests.

In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s autocratic tendencies and sectarian-imbued repressive policies further alienated a Sunni population that, as soon as the opportunity presented itself, threw in its lot with the Islamic State (IS), despite the latter’s brutal rule. Iran could have acted to moderate Maliki’s behavior but neglected to do so, content that a friendly Shi’ite Islamist coalition ruled a neighbor that, barely a generation ago, had launched a destructive eight-year war against it. The Iraqi army’s collapse in the face of Islamic State’s advance in June 2014 created a security vacuum that Iranian military advisers have tried to fill by commanding urgently mobilized Iraqi Shiite militias. But what will the proliferation of such militias do for the unity of the Iraqi state, which Iran claims to want to preserve? The country’s breakup into warring fiefdoms is now a more likely scenario.

Only in Yemen has Iran made headway, but this was hardly the result of its own doing. The Houthis exploited Saudi political fumbling when they marched virtually unopposed into Sanaa and parts south earlier this year, aided by forces allied with the former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Iranians were quick to take credit, and also to wave the flag, presumably to poke their Saudi rival in the eye and dissuade it from escalating its support for Syrian rebels. Yet this has amounted to very little in material terms. Iran’s role in Yemen remains mostly cost-free, and the country is too far from its shores to appear to warrant a major investment of resources. Nor would it be difficult for Iran to turn its back if/when the costs become too great, as they may now that a Saudi-led coalition has started to reverse the Houthis’ gains.

In other words, Iran cannot be said to have significantly expanded its influence in the region, but rather to have been forced to provide military protection to pivotal allies it risked losing. If this has caused panic in Riyadh, it’s mainly because of the Arab world’s state of disarray. The regional order that emerged out of the competition between Arab nationalist forces and conservative regimes in the 1950s and 1960s has rapidly come apart. The Arab Spring popular protests opened the door to Islamist groups, who are stepping into the political vacuum left by an exhausted state system, but Saudi Arabia, which is their ideological progenitor, has not been able to benefit. Instead, it is itself threatened by these groups, which consider the Saudi royal family illegitimate rulers of Islam’s holiest sites.

Saudi leaders have much to answer for. For decades they have actively worked to allow an extreme, intolerant strain of Islam to come to the fore in the Muslim world by spending billions on the construction of mosques, the distribution of literature, and the promotion of clerics prepared to do their bidding. The chickens are now coming home to roost: the new generation of jihadis has embraced the Saudi leadership’s religious ideology but — seeing its profligacy and corruption — rejects its right to govern. To ward off the danger, the late King Abdullah targeted the Muslim Brotherhood, a mainstream rival to the Saudi royal family, including by helping foment the group’s downfall in Egypt. His successor, King Salman, perhaps recognizing that the real threat derives less from the Muslim Brotherhood than from the radicalization its suppression entails, has tried a different tack, mobilizing the Sunni Muslim world against the perception of Iranian aggression. Support of the Saudi-led air assault on Yemen has been significant throughout the Sunni Muslim world, despite the immense suffering the often indiscriminate bombardments have caused, because the target is a (nominally) Shiite group that has declared affinity with Iran and Hizbollah–regardless of the absence of any significant Iranian involvement.

The contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia is destabilizing the entire region, with global consequences, and neither seems to have a workable strategy to exit the conflicts in which they are embroiled. At the heart of their competition lies Syria, a majority-Sunni country ruled by a minority regime allied with Iran. Riyadh has long wanted it to return to the “Arab fold”; the 2011 revolt offered an excellent opportunity, even though the protesters were fired by their opposition to autocracy (including, in theory, the Saudi variety) more than to rule by a particular sect. However, deep divisions among the rebels’ supporters (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the U.S.) helped create today’s military stalemate with its attendant humanitarian catastrophe.

If things are beginning to move again in Syria today it is in part because Turkey has decided to become more active in the north. IS has been extending its reach, and moreover has begun carrying out attacks inside Turkey. If this is a concern for Turkish leaders, even more so is their perception of an Iranian ascendancy. They have watched with alarm as the Syrian branch of the PKK, the Tehran-allied Kurdish rebel party in Turkey, has tried to ingratiate itself with the United States by joining the battle against IS in both Syria and Iraq, and showing itself an effective fighting force. President Recip Tayyep Erdoğan is in the midst of a political struggle, hoping to expand his powers following elections in November; playing the nationalist (anti-PKK) card may win him the votes he needs for his AK party to form a government without coalition partners.

King Salman’s strategic shift of focus was pleasing to Erdoğan, who promptly visited Riyadh, finding that he and the king could see eye to eye on most issues, with the exception of Egypt, which they agreed to put aside. Iran’s return to regional status, therefore, faces a tentative, uneasy “Sunni” alliance between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, with the U.S. trying to balance the three in pursuit of its own interests.

Many have found Washington’s Mideast policy mystifying, if not outright wrongheaded. They blame the Obama administration for abandoning its friends during the Arab Spring and then further destabilizing the region by opening the door to Iran — allowing Shiite Islamist parties to run Iraq; refusing to provide the kind of support that would have allowed Syrian rebels to topple Assad; and ratifying Iran’s regional standing via the newly signed nuclear deal — again at the expense of its Gulf allies. The Saudis may also feel that Iran is being rewarded for seeking to re-enter from its rogue orbit the constellation known as the international community without being asked to rein in its ambitions, and that as a result they are getting the short end of the stick despite being Washington’s longtime, reliable ally.

Obama does appear to have a strategy, however; it’s called “tough love,” involving qualified backing of Washington’s Gulf allies. While the administration has provided half-hearted support for the Saudi air war on Yemen, it has also delivered a warning that if Gulf states fail to take steps to put their own house in order, they are simply inviting outside parties like Iran to take advantage of their internal weakness and regional missteps. The administration’s approach is, of course, also based on the realization that the United States no longer enjoys its global reach of yesteryear, and that direct military intervention in the Middle East, of the kind that has proved counter-productive in the past, would merely put a spotlight on this discomfiting fact.

Thus we have seen only a limited U.S. military projection in the region (seeking to contain IS – but barely – through airstrikes). What we have not seen is a more proactive diplomatic initiative to reduce tensions. U.S. officials hinted until recently that a more assertive posture could have undermined the nuclear negotiations with Iran. But now that an accord is in place the administration has both the opportunity and an obligation to work with the principal parties to start to defuse the rampant conflicts plaguing the region. The fact that the United States and Iran have established a solid channel of communications and, over the past couple of years, have built a modicum of mutual trust should be of tremendous help in this respect.

Their focus, first and foremost, should be on Syria. (In Yemen, Iran remains little more than a background player, and has shown it will step back when pressed to do so, as when it agreed last June to send a ship — laden with humanitarian aid but accused of carrying weapons — to dock in neighboring Djibouti for inspection by the United Nations rather than, provocatively, in Houthi-controlled Hodeida.) The opportunity to negotiate a deal over a Syrian transition is now – before Washington and Tehran fritter away the chips of their fragile rapprochement in mutual recriminations, as implementation of the nuclear deal hits a bump or goes off-track. Whether Iranian leaders will agree to a change in Syria that would still protect their country’s core interests (as per ideas outlined by the International Crisis Group last April) or instead decide to double down in their support for Assad’s faltering regime is a matter of conjecture. But accumulated mutual goodwill and the priceless experience of negotiating a complex treaty could and should be deployed to seek a negotiated way out.

In sum, the nuclear deal has not removed the question of the Iranian threat but reframed it. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been faced until now with what they saw as two bad futures: a nuclear-armed Iran throwing its weight around in the region or a non-nuclear Iran friendly with the United States doing so. With the signing of the Vienna agreement, a decision has been made for them. We are far from seeing the emergence of a new U.S.-Iran alliance, but the taboo has been broken and the first critical hurdle overcome. So now is the moment for diplomacy, not escalation. If there is anything significant Obama could add to his legacy during his final year in office, it would be to take the lead in guiding his partners in the region toward a less confrontational posture.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, political chief of Afghanistan's Taliban, in north China's Tianjin, 28 July 2021. Li Ran Xinhua via AFP
Commentary / Asia

With the Taliban Back in Kabul, Regional Powers Watch and Wait

The Taliban’s return to power raises questions not only about how the movement will use its newfound authority but also about what Afghanistan’s neighbours will do in response. Crisis Group experts offer a 360-degree view of these countries’ initial reactions and what is behind them.

On 15 August, the Taliban capped their drive for power in Afghanistan by taking Kabul, the country’s capital, for the first time since they ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001. With the previous government’s collapse, the group is now the de facto power throughout the country and is in the process of forming a new government and revamped state system. Questions are swirling about how they will govern, such as whether they will attempt to exercise a monopoly on power or give some roles to other political forces and whether they will try to reimpose the harsh social restrictions, including on women, that they enforced in the late 1990s. As yet, there are no firm answers.

Amid the uncertainty, regional powers are eyeing how to react to the upheaval. In the 1990s, the Taliban government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, was an international pariah, recognised only by three countries, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and kept at arm’s length by others, due partly to activist campaigns decrying their often violent repression of women and girls in particular. Foreign capitals also regarded them warily for offering safe haven to al-Qaeda, the transnational jihadist group that had mounted deadly attacks including the bombings at the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya in 1998. The concern about al-Qaeda of course spiked after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. Though worries about the Taliban persist, the movement is not as isolated as it was in past. It has tried to cultivate better relations with other countries over the last few years. As it was regaining military strength on the ground, it was seeking to reassure Afghanistan’s neighbours that it would govern responsibly. Still, regional powers are taken aback by the Taliban’s dramatic advance, which has required many of them to recalibrate their approaches to protecting their interests in the country.

In this commentary, Crisis Group experts look at various regional powers’ agendas vis-à-vis Afghanistan, focusing on their relations with the Taliban until now, their responses to the movement’s takeover thus far and their options in the months ahead.

Pakistan

For decades, the Taliban have been Pakistan’s main ally in Afghanistan and Islamabad’s primary means of asserting influence over its western neighbour. Long before the last U.S. troops began leaving Afghanistan, and even before the Trump administration decided to withdraw them, Islamabad was working to facilitate the insurgents’ return to government in Kabul. But it wanted to restore the Taliban through power-sharing arrangements that would win international diplomatic and economic support. The Taliban’s swift military victory and forcible capture of the Afghan state are thus an opportunity for Pakistan, but one that comes with considerable challenges. 

Samina Ahmed, Project Director, South Asia and Senior Asia Adviser, contributed this section.

A key question is the composition of the new Afghan government. Islamabad is aware that a Taliban administration that does not share power with other political forces could face Western sanctions and quickly become more of a burden than an asset. It is inclined to recognise a Taliban government, but reluctant to do so unilaterally, fearful of straining relations with Western states, particularly the U.S. and European Union members. Top policymakers insist that Islamabad will take a decision on recognition only after consulting with the extended “troika”, which, aside from Pakistan, includes the U.S., China and Russia. To try to sidestep sanctions, Islamabad, which retains close ties with the Taliban, is urging the movement to reach an understanding on future governance structures with key Afghan leaders, particularly Hamid Karzai, the first Afghan president after the U.S. invasion, and Abdullah Abdullah, who was a senior official under the ousted leader Ashraf Ghani. Even the façade of an inclusive government could pave the way for Pakistani recognition, particularly if powers such as China and Russia follow suit. Yet the West could still spurn such a government should it fail to follow through on the Taliban’s pledges to respect basic rights and counter transnational jihadist groups, notably al-Qaeda. 

A second issue is reviving economic ties. Many Pakistani businesses see the Taliban takeover and improved relations with Kabul as a chance to boost bilateral trade, which has shrunk from a high of $2 billion in 2013, when Pakistan was Afghanistan’s largest trading partner, to less than half that amount due to tensions between Islamabad and the Ghani government. But there is a downside to the new dispensation: so long as Afghan citizens face insecurity and economic deprivation at home, many thousands of refugees could seek shelter in Pakistan. Pakistani people smugglers are already finding willing Afghan customers. If the country suffers a sharp downturn, as appears likely, any hope of economic dividends for Pakistan is likely to be dashed. 

As Pakistan forges its Afghanistan policy, however, the top priority will be its own security. Its relations with the next Afghan government will depend on how Kabul deals with Pakistani militants based in Afghanistan, particularly the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan. Attacks in Pakistan’s tribal belt are surging amid reports, confirmed by Pakistan’s interior minister, that the Taliban freed scores of Pakistani militants during jailbreaks as they advanced across the country. In an important speech before a military audience on 20 August, Pakistani army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa was surely referring to these incidents when he said: “We expect the Taliban to live up to the promises made to the international community of [respecting] women and human rights and that Afghan soil would not be used [for staging assaults on] any other country”. The Taliban will want to avoid antagonising its chief and longstanding foreign patron, but how much it will want or be able to contain Pakistani militants is unclear. For its part, Islamabad is likely unwilling to abandon its Taliban ally. Yet there is no guarantee that the Taliban, now ascendant in their homeland, will fall in line with Islamabad’s preferences.

India

Like the rest of the world, India was taken by surprise at the lightning speed of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. Delhi has traditionally looked at Afghanistan through the prism of its rivalry with Islamabad. In 1996, when Taliban fighters first swept into Kabul, backed by Pakistan, India began supporting the Northern Alliance fighters who were resisting the Taliban’s rule. After the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervened following the 11 September 2001 attacks, India kept its security forces out of Afghanistan, as the U.S. did not wish the country to become another sparring ground for Delhi and Islamabad. But now India faces a strategic challenge. It perceives an increasing threat to its security interests emanating from Afghanistan, but it lacks both substantial leverage to protect them and good lines of communication with the Taliban to make its priorities clear. 

Praveen Donthi, Senior Analyst, India, contributed this section.

India’s biggest concern is that Afghanistan will again become a sanctuary for transnational jihadist organisations such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, as well as Pakistani militant groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, which Delhi worries might use the country as a launching pad for attacks on India. According to Indian security agencies, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba is responsible for the November 2008 terror attacks that killed more than 160 people in Mumbai, and Jaish-e-Muhammad for the 2019 Pulwama suicide attack on a security convoy on the Srinagar-Jammu highway, which was allegedly planned in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Both outfits have links to each other, and to the Taliban, and are active in Kashmir. The recent increase in militant attacks in Indian-controlled Kashmir, as well as efforts by Islamist militants to cross the line of control separating Indian and Pakistani troops, are seen by Delhi as signs of things to come. 

Although Delhi sees the Taliban as under Islamabad’s influence, Indian officials and other members of the national security community also hope the Taliban are capable of making deals with other countries on their own and speculate that they may know how to manipulate situations like the difficult India-Pakistan relationship to their advantage. Policymakers wonder, for example, if the Taliban might be willing to trade assurances with respect to Delhi’s security concerns for economic cooperation, although such a deal would be difficult under Islamabad’s watchful eye. In any case, India is likely to wait until the dust settles, and take its cue from the U.S. and other Western powers, before making any overtures relating to formal diplomatic or economic engagement. 

Delhi is in no rush to recognise the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government. At a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Cabinet Committee on Security took the view that India will be neither the first nor the last country to cross the recognition threshold. It will almost certainly watch first to see how much the Taliban is able to exert sovereign control over Afghan territory, and whether it is willing and able to corral groups that India perceives as threatening. Delhi will also test its own ability to make inroads with the group notwithstanding Islamabad’s influence. Given the uncertainty surrounding these important strategic questions, India will likely delay the recognition decision as long as it considers feasible. 

Finding a way to work with a Taliban government in order to protect its interests is not going to be easy for India. Delhi had strong links to President Ashraf Ghani’s government that the Taliban just toppled. It has invested roughly $3 billion in Afghanistan since normalising relations with the post-Taliban government in 2002. It helped build Afghanistan’s infrastructure and institutional capacity, and as recently as one month ago was continuing to affirm its support for the 2004 constitution that the Taliban has consistently rejected. 

While it is very unlikely that Delhi will resume its annual aid flows to Afghanistan anytime soon, Indian officials are already seeking to establish better lines of communication with the Taliban. After years of little to no engagement, however, it has proven difficult to do so. Security officials and diplomats have made attempts to reach out to the Taliban over the last few months, especially recently as part of efforts to evacuate Indian citizens in the wake of the Ghani government’s collapse, but communication barely exists. At least in the near term, India is likely to seek assistance from Russia and Iran when it needs to talk with the Taliban. 

As for whether India might support anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, this prospect is unlikely at the moment. When the group was last in power, in the 1990s, Delhi aligned its Afghanistan policy with Moscow’s, which included support for anti-Taliban forces. But India is no longer following Russia’s lead and is highly unlikely to risk stirring things up with Pakistan by involving itself with anti-Taliban activity. India would almost certainly be concerned that such entanglements might lead to conflagration on the line of control in Kashmir at a time when its resources and attention have been diverted to managing border tensions with China. 

The situation in Afghanistan is unfolding at an important political moment for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. The party is preparing for 2022 assembly elections in the state of Uttar Pradesh – by far India’s most populous – that could well be a harbinger for 2024 national elections. The BJP traditionally campaigns on a platform that relies largely on efforts to divide voters along Hindu-Muslim lines as well as on anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Party leaders may also invoke the Taliban’s ill treatment of women to further their polarising political agenda (though the women’s rights issue is unlikely to influence the government’s future moves). Overall, the BJP will not wish to be seen dealing with the Taliban, which its members characterise as a Pakistan-manufactured Islamist terror outfit that poses a major threat to India. Accordingly, political expediency will most likely dictate that the government follow a dual policy of criticising the Taliban openly but engaging with them covertly.

Iran

What a difference twenty years makes. Before the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Iran and the Taliban were bitter foes. The two sides nearly went to war in 1998, after the Taliban killed eleven Iranian diplomats and a journalist in Mazar-i-Sharif. Three years later, Tehran played a key role in helping the U.S. topple the Taliban and set up a new republic in their place.

Ali Vaez, Senior Adviser to the President & Project Director, Iran, contributed this section.

Today, with the Taliban back in power in Kabul, Tehran’s view of the group seems to have undergone a stunning transformation. The newly inaugurated President Ebrahim Raisi called the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan “an opportunity to restore life, security and lasting peace” in the country. His government advised the media to temper criticism of the Taliban, with state-run outlets portraying the militants as “transformed” and “more moderate than before”. Officials have started referring to the new Afghan order as the “Islamic Emirate”, drawing upon the Taliban’s own longstanding lexicon. 

This sea change is hardly sudden. Over the years, as the U.S.-backed Afghan government struggled and the Taliban resurged, Tehran saw the writing on the wall. It began hedging its bets by providing financial and military support to the Taliban, which from the mid-2010s onward it has also regarded as a bulwark against the Islamic State. Taliban leaders themselves appear to have seen an advantage in closer ties with Iran, notwithstanding the difficult history, as their relations with their closest foreign patron Pakistan were often strained. Now that the U.S.-backed government has fallen, Tehran is jubilant that another of Washington’s projects in its backyard has ended in grief, and it is pleased to see Western troops disappearing from across its eastern border. 

Still, even as it celebrates the U.S.-NATO withdrawal, Iran is also concerned that instability and economic woes next door could spill into its territory. Iran shares a 921km border with Afghanistan, through which it trades about $2 billion of goods with its neighbour each year (nearly one third of Afghanistan’s trade volume). Afghanistan is Iran’s fifth biggest export market – one that would be at risk should Afghans’ purchasing power plummet due to international isolation under Taliban rule. Further, the porous border is a major transit corridor for Afghan refugees and opium into Iran, both of which have been long-term burdens for the authorities. For years, the two countries have also been locked in a struggle over the waters of the Helmand river. Iran’s ideal would be an Afghan government that boosts trade and freely shares water while stemming the flow of refugees and narcotics. Iran also cares about the fate of Shiite Afghan Hazaras, whom the Talban brutally persecuted when they ruled in the 1990s, but their protection is not among its top priorities. 

For now, Iran seems to have no plans to support anti-Taliban groups, though that might change were Tehran to become dissatisfied with Kabul. Iran appears to hope that it can develop cordial ties with the new Taliban-led government and, through its intra-Afghan mediation efforts that picked up steam in July, encourage a more pluralistic power structure. Iran’s embassy in Kabul and consulate in Herat remain open. But should the situation deteriorate, it has other options. For example, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Qods Force commander, Ismail Qaani, oversaw Iran’s policy in Afghanistan for years before taking his current position, and helped mobilise thousands of Hazara fighters, known as the Fatemiyoun brigade, to fight in support of the Assad regime in Syria. Tehran could choose to attempt this feat again in Afghanistan. Or it could cooperate with internal Taliban opponents with whom it has prior familiarity, such as Ahmad Masoud, the leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, who is holding out against the Taliban in Panjshir valley and who lived in exile in Iran for 21 years. Iran also managed to secure the release of former warlord Ismail Khan, who led an anti-Taliban militia and is now in Mashhad, in Iran, after being briefly detained by the Taliban when they recently took control of Herat. 

In the weeks ahead, Tehran will likely watch closely how the Taliban tackles government formation and whether it seems capable of delivering on Iranian priorities before it makes major decisions about the direction of its ties with Kabul. As much as Iran wants a constructive relationship with the Taliban, it remains wary of economic collapse or instability in Afghanistan and the corresponding problems these could bring at a time when Tehran is struggling with a severe economic crisis and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Decisions about whether it will recognise and try to bolster the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government, or work to weaken it by supporting its internal enemies, could well hinge on how well the Taliban manages these concerns.

China

China’s interests in Afghanistan are animated primarily by concerns over insecurity that may spill over from an unstable Afghanistan, threatening Chinese citizens and projects in Pakistan and Central Asia, as well as in China itself. China’s policy has therefore put at the top of its priorities in Afghanistan advancing stability, largely through diplomatic and economic engagement, including by participating in the former U.S.-led peace process and, over time, developing regional dialogue mechanisms of its own. Past economic engagement in Afghanistan has not been the smoothest for China and has yielded no significant results. Chinese companies have been sitting on two major projects since 2008 (the Mes Aynak copper mine) and 2011 (the Amu Darya oil field), neither of which took off, in part because of an uncertain security environment. A longstanding element of China’s policy has been to hedge its bets by maintaining relations with all key Afghan actors, including the former Afghan government and the Taliban, to ensure that Beijing’s security interests are protected. 

Amanda Hsiao, Senior Analyst, China, contributed this section.

At the geopolitical level, Beijing sees the U.S.-NATO withdrawal as both an opportunity and a challenge. On one hand, China has always been uneasy about the presence of U.S. military bases so near to its west. The withdrawal also gives China the chance to exert its influence more freely in Central Asia. On the other hand, China is concerned not only about the regional security vacuum left in the wake of the international troops’ departure, but also about the heightened pressures it may face in the Indo-Pacific arena, as a Washington freed of Afghanistan devotes its energies and resources more fully to areas to China’s south and east. 

With regard to a Taliban-led government, Beijing has consistently emphasised two issues so far. First, it believes that the road to internal Afghan stability is through a political accommodation in which the Taliban sufficiently shares power with “all factions and ethnic groups” in Afghanistan. Secondly, it has called upon the Taliban to break with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an anti-China militant group partly based in Afghanistan. According to the UN, ETIM has several hundred members in and around Badakhshan province (where China and Afghanistan share a small border), was active in a July 2020 siege of Afghan security forces and maintains relations with a number of other militant groups. The Taliban has made reassuring noises about ETIM and, so far, appears to be making tentative moves toward a domestic political accommodation, but Beijing does not yet appear confident that Afghanistan’s new leaders are willing or able to deliver on either front. A couple of days after the Taliban took over Kabul, official Chinese rhetoric began encouraging the group to pursue “moderate and prudent domestic and foreign policies”.

China’s conception of relations with an ascendant Taliban has been pragmatic and centred on a simple quid pro quo: the Taliban is to limit the operations of militant groups Beijing does not like in return for China’s political recognition and economic engagement. This framework holds but is complicated by the Taliban becoming more dominant than Beijing had anticipated, rather than becoming part of Afghanistan’s political fabric through a negotiated settlement. The Chinese foreign ministry has been welcoming in its statements following the Taliban’s takeover, saying China is “ready to continue to develop good neighbourliness and friendly cooperation with Afghanistan”, and officials are likely pleased that they had the foresight to engage Taliban leaders at a high-profile meeting in late July. 

Beijing will be watching the Taliban’s movements closely in the next few weeks, as well as those of other international actors, to determine its own response – its policymaking will evolve with, and largely react to, events. Beijing will want to extend recognition to the Taliban government, likely after or at the same time that Pakistan does so but before any Western country does, though the timing of this step may be partly determined by its success in getting additional reassurances from the Taliban on the two issues that it cares most about. Beijing may push for an easing of sanctions on the Taliban, a policy tool it generally does not support, especially if Russia is on board, and if it sees the lifting of sanctions as helpful for stability. Faced with a cash-strapped Taliban-run government, China may provide a modest infusion of aid. Given past experience, Beijing is unlikely to wade in with grand infrastructure deals and major investments until it sees the dust settling. 

Should the security situation in Afghanistan precipitously decline, and China feel that it cannot rely solely on the Taliban government or Pakistan to ensure the safety of its projects and citizens in the region, China may consider developing relations with armed factions on the ground that can. In Myanmar and South Sudan, China maintained and developed ties with armed opposition groups to hedge against governments Beijing supported but was not sure would or could fully look after China’s interests. The relationship Beijing built with the Taliban themselves long before their ascendance is a testament to this strategy.

Russia and Central Asia

Compared to Western capitals, Moscow has received the news of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan calmly. Many Russians had predicted that the insurgents would triumph eventually, albeit perhaps not quite so rapidly. Officials likely feel some schadenfreude at the abrupt collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. Some may even feel that it sheds comparatively positive light on Russia’s own troubled record in Afghanistan, which the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 before retreating a decade later. Following the Red Army’s departure in 1989, the communist government it backed in Kabul lasted three further years, falling only after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Kremlin’s support ceased. 

Olga Oliker, Program Director, Europe and Central Asia, contributed to this section.

Russian officials emphasise that the Taliban thus far has brought stability to Afghanistan, and stability is at the core of what Moscow wants. Should Afghanistan collapse, Russia and its Central Asian neighbours fear untold numbers of migrants might seek to come in over their borders. Russian President Vladimir Putin has additionally voiced concern that Islamist militants could be hiding among the refugees. Moscow especially wishes to ensure that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for those who would attack Russia or the Central Asian states, and it has welcomed Taliban assurances to this effect. It has also expressed hopes the Taliban will keep its promise to put an end to opium production in Afghanistan, and the resulting flow of drugs to Central Asia and Russia. 

Moscow has positioned itself well to deal with a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Since 2015, it has played an increasingly large role in intra-Afghan talks, both looking to enhance its diplomatic profile and to hedge against the planned U.S. withdrawal, which it feared could be destabilising. The resulting cordial relations with the Taliban are such that the latter has even asked Moscow to help mediate between them and National Resistance Front leader Ahmad Masoud, who has refused to submit to Taliban rule and is threatening to mount a rebellion from the Panjshir valley in the north.

Oleg Ignatov, Senior Analyst, Russia contributed to this section.

Russia is also pleased to act as both intermediary and bodyguard for the Central Asian countries as they warily navigate their own relations with Afghanistan. These states all have historical reasons to be concerned about the security implications of the Taliban takeover. In the late 1990s, when the Taliban last held Kabul, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan all faced attacks by al-Qaeda-backed insurgents with bases in Afghanistan. At times during the last twenty years, all five Central Asian states have provided basing, overflight, refuelling and other support to U.S. and other international forces in Afghanistan. 

Now, however, they are placing their bets with Moscow, which has made clear it wants no U.S. military presence in the region going forward. Russia already has a base in Tajikistan and has promised to provide additional security support to Dushanbe if needed. In mid-August, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan completed joint military exercises with Russia near the Afghan border. The Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization plans more joint drills in Kyrgyzstan in early September. Russia sees the diplomatic and military assistance it is providing the Central Asian states as a way to strengthen its security as well as its hand in the region.

Russian talking points today stress the need for Afghans to make their own decisions about their country’s future. Russian officials say they hope to see an inclusive future government but accept the reality that the Taliban are in charge. They are unlikely to join Western powers in pressing hard on Kabul to safeguard the rights of women and girls or to uphold democratic principles. At the same time, the Kremlin is in no hurry to recognise the Taliban’s rule formally, or to remove UN sanctions that apply to the movement or its members. Moscow sees these steps as potential points of leverage, and it will likely wait before acting on either front to see whether the Taliban’s rule brings stability or conflict, the impact of their ascent on security in Central Asia, and whether they encourage or rein in the regional drug trade. Moscow will also likely look to what other influential powers do, especially the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, and it will almost certainly coordinate its actions with Beijing, at least to some extent. 

As for what Moscow will do if the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates, it could beef up its military presence in Central Asia as a bulwark against violent actors coming over the border. If relations with the Taliban go south as well, it might even look to coordinate with Western states, and certainly with others with regional influence, such as Turkey, on measures to prevent and mitigate potential damage. But Russian officials stress that the Kremlin has no intention of sending troops back to Afghanistan.

Contributors

Project Director, South Asia and Senior Asia Adviser
Senior Analyst, India
Senior Adviser to the President & Project Director, Iran
AliVaez
Senior Analyst, China
amanda_hsiao
Program Director, Europe and Central Asia
OlyaOliker
Senior Analyst, Russia
OlegIgnatov18