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India, Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia at the Taliban Turning Point

India, Pakistan, Iran, China and Russia at the Taliban Turning Point

Thursday, 19 August, 2021 - 10:30

A retired British general did not believe that officials from his country and the United States could be astonished by the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan if they read their daily intelligence reports.

This is in line with many political observers’ questions about the developments in Afghanistan and the swift collapse of the lines of defense that the West had paid dearly for in lives and money. The observers question whether Western countries, particularly Britain and the United States, were unaware, with all the intelligence that has been gathered, that the Taliban would sweep past cities and occupy Afghan provinces and its capital Kabul within a few days without the Afghan army, which had been trained and equipped for over twenty years, putting up a fight.

Many don’t believe that the Taliban’s victory was the result of misjudgment or a slip-up by the US and Britain. It won’t be long before Iran enters a confrontation it would rather avoid at this time, pushing all the Shiite factions under its control to repel Taliban attacks and thereby igniting a war whose trajectory would be unknown. The war would fragment its strength and ravage its entity, weakening it in the face of the countries that made the decision… A war that would end the Mullahs’ dreams of reestablishing a Persian empire.

It is the Great Game. Recently, in 1991, after the liberation of Kuwait and the slaughter of the Republican Guard as they were pulling out of it, the road to Baghdad was open, free of any impediments or obstacles. However, Washington decided not to settle the battle comprehensively, and so Saddam stayed in power around 10 years longer, until the Iraq War during which Baghdad was occupied and its regime was toppled.

Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed the decision bluntly, saying that the 1991 war neutralized Saddam and that the US had no interest in removing him altogether by occupying Iraq. Going back further, to the Soviet army’s invasion of Afghanistan, the US did not mobilize militarily and did nothing to stop the Russians from entering Afghan provinces. Instead, they equipped hardline Islamists, including Oussama Bin Laden, helping them wage an all-out guerrilla war against the Soviets and force them to withdraw. That war was among the major reasons for the Soviet Union’s collapse. As for what happened recently, it shocked the other countries concerned, including Iran, India and even China.

Regardless of the regime in power, Afghanistan remains a geopolitical prize because of its unexploited mineral wealth and highly strategic location. Thus, Iran and India have tried to draw it in through two projects. The Chabahar port is an initiative that brought Iran, India and Afghanistan together in an attempt to grant the landlocked country a route/freight lane to the open seas. The hope was that the infrastructure would benefit, in the end, from the most expansive Indian transportation corridor linking north and south and is aimed at linking India with Europe. There was another effort, though it is recent, to expand the Chinese Belt and Road such that it goes through Afghanistan - an effort Beijing only began openly exploring earlier this year.

Earlier this month, during a meeting between Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar and Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi declared that “Iran and India can play a constructive and beneficial role in ensuring security in the region, especially Afghanistan.” The talks focused mainly on Afghanistan, where subsequent developments unfolded rapidly. Jaishankar’s trip this month coincided with the start of the Taliban’s astonishing campaign across Afghanistan. Given the speed at which things are developing, every country will now have to rethink its Afghanistan policy.

For India, the options are limited, while it could opt for a negative approach as it awaits more clarity. New Delhi does not have the capacity to unilaterally influence the situation on the ground in Afghanistan; it needs a partner in Afghanistan. Collaboration with China and Pakistan remains unsuccessful, and while Russia is a trusted historic partner, Moscow generally looks to Pakistan for help safeguarding its interests in Afghanistan.

This leaves Iran as India’s most important ally in Afghanistan. Both India and Iran want a stable Afghanistan run by an inclusive government, one that is dominated by neither the Taliban nor Pakistan. Both have reasons to worry about the Taliban’s return to power in Kabul. India fears that such a scenario could lead to a repeat of what happened in the 1990s, when Afghanistan, under the Taliban’s control, was a haven for anti-Indian terrorist groups backed by the Pakistani military establishment.

On the other hand, Iran almost waged war against the Taliban in 1998 when the organization killed Iranian diplomats after seizing Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.

Shiite Iran is worried that the hardline Sunni Taliban could harbor other hardline groups that have a similar ideology and could use Afghanistan as a base for their operations. Tehran also worries for the Shiite minority in Afghanistan and the potential increase in drug trafficking through the porous 572-mile border the two countries share.

As for India, geography has always been what draws it most to Iran, given the fact that it shares no borders with Afghanistan. As well as a bulwark preventing Pakistan from having a land route to the country, India sees Iran as a viable entry point into Afghanistan, and through it, to the markets and mineral wealth of Central Asia. To make use of this potential, New Delhi and Tehran worked together to develop and modernize the Chabahar Port in southeastern Iran.

For a long time, India has been hoping to sell Chabahar as an alternative maritime entry point into Afghanistan, but the threat of US sanctions has hindered India’s engagement with the project. While the port was officially exempt from sanctions, India remained cautious to avoid provoking former US President Donald Trump; it thus paid only part of the 500 million dollars that had been allocated to developing the port after it strove to have the private sector take part in the project.

The Taliban’s rise to power leaves Chabahar, as a safe, viable, seamless gateway to the sea, with Afghanistan a corridor to Central Asia, currently “up in the air.”

Before Kabul fell, the Taliban was able to take control of border crossings with Iran. The latter was forced to close its borders with Afghanistan, which could cut off the two billion dollars of annual trade between the two countries.

In the long term, India is worried that a Taliban-controlled government could increase Afghanistan’s trade through the Karachi and Gwadar ports instead of Chabahar. This means that instead of enhancing regional integration, India could resort to cooperating with Iran to look into the possibility of working with the Taliban. This might seem like a solution, but during the 1990s, New Delhi and Tehran, in collaboration with Moscow, provided political, military and financial assistance to the northern alliance, which was a group of Afghan leaders who had been fighting the Taliban government at the time. However, Tehran has worked carefully to develop a relationship with the organization despite its apprehensions, and that includes supplying the Taliban with weapons to fight US presence in the region. Recently, they cooperated diplomatically with the Taliban in anticipation of the latter’s return to power.

It seems like New Delhi has itself reached out to the Taliban over the past few months, knowing that it needs to include all Afghan factions. However, of all the region’s countries, India is the most reluctant to include the Taliban, let alone recognize its government.

Iran will likely keep military options against the Taliban on the table, in case the relationship between them becomes strained. India could also be ready to support local Afghan resistance in the future. With that, in contrast with the past, India and Iran could strive to find common ground. The former northern alliance is working on uniting, as many warlords were imprisoned across the country or have fled. For this reason, Iran could resort to calling on Liwa Fatemiyoun, the Shiite fighters it has trained, to fight the Taliban.

It seems, however, that India prefers a broader alliance against the Taliban. New Delhi will be worried about the dangers that utilizing the Fatemiyoun could create in terms of stirring sectarian violence in Afghanistan, which could create more instability.

The challenges on the Afghan front could have broader implications for India and Iran’s bilateral relationship. They mostly come down to the fact that their assessment is totally contradictory to that of the United States. India has also had difficulty maintaining a balance between its relationships with the two rivals, usually opting to contain its links with Iran because of threats of US sanctions. Further complicating things is the agreement that runs for 25 years signed by Iran and China, India’s main strategic rival, while India has developed stronger strategic ties with Iran’s traditional foes: Israel, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan will have massive geopolitical implications for the region, and it will heavily impact regional countries, first among them Iran.

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