The Regional Ramifications of the Afghanistan situation: 3 Country Case StudiesAugust 27, 2021 in Uncategorized
On 14 April 2021, the United States announced it would be withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan on 1 May. In subsequent months all hell would break loose in the country, with the Taliban seizing much of Afghan territory, including its key cities. The Afghan capital, Kabul was the last to fall, doing so on 15 August 2021. Taliban militants overran the Afghan government building, and declared a new country: the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. This new development has sent shockwaves across the world and the wider region. This article will explore the regional ramifications of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Specifically, it will look at the situation from the angle of 3 countries in the region that it has effected, albeit in different ways: Iran, Israel and Palestine.
Iran shares frontiers with Afghanistan, with three of its provinces home to border crossings: Razavi Khorasan, South Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchestan. On 8 July 2021, the Taliban seized the Afghan border crossing of Islam Qala (located in Afghanistan’s Herat province) – which borders Iran’s Taybad checkpoint. Further, on the same day Abu Nasr Farahi border crossing (located in Afghanistan’s Farah province) – bordering Iran’s Mahirud checkpoint – was taken. With the Taliban holding these key routes, this seemingly poses a threat to Iran’s commerce and security. Reciprocating, that day Iran’s customs office halted export shipments to its neighbour – following the storming of customs offices by the Taliban on the Afghan side. Interestingly, Iran’s Foreign Ministry has been quick to affirm the border remains “in full tranquillity and security,” despite the situation on the other side. This view was reinforced on 15 August, when Iranian border guards relayed there had been no clashes between them and the Taliban at Taybad checkpoint. The situation at the other checkpoints though is less clear.
Diplomacy-wise, things have been more interesting. A day prior to the crossings’ seizure, Iran’s Foreign Ministry hosted talks in its capital Tehran between Afghan and Taliban delegations. During which, the Foreign Minister remarked Iran stands “ready to assist the dialogue” and “resolve” Afghanistan’s [current] conflicts. But the situation has since drastically changed, which has made it less clear what Iran’s Afghanistan policy is. However, on 23 August Iran elaborated on its approach, stating it was “closely following the latest developments in Afghanistan.” This is a logical position to take when such situation is literally on one’s own doorstep. Further, seeing as its diplomats still remain in Afghanistan at the moment, it is unsurprising they are doing so – much like any country with assets inside Afghanistan is doing at the moment. Speaking of, there have been unconfirmed reports that say Iranian diplomats are safe inside Iran’s missions in Kabul and Herat places. Less clear is the situation in its Mazar-i-Sharif consulate. Those same reports said the Mazar-i-Sharif staffers had been evacuated to Kabul. All-in-all, it appears the diplomatic channels for now remain open under the Taliban.
Iran has also stressed “the need for dialogue and peaceful resolution,” and revealed it was in contact with “all parties and groups in Afghanistan.” It did not specify which groups, but from deduction this likely includes the Taliban, but rules out the Afghan government – currently in exile. A largely tight-lipped but quite interesting stance, under the surface it seems to indicate they are not opposed to the Taliban. This view seemed more likely when it was revealed Iran’s new President Ebrahim Raisi had welcomed the U.S.’s “defeat” in the country, at the hands of the Taliban. This suggests Iran is by the least sympathetic with their cause. Contact-wise, with the Taliban being the key actor in the country, it seems likely Iran would seek to get closer to them – something achieved by “dialogue.” This though would be an odd move, considering the Taliban and Iran are not natural allies – besides sharing disdain for the West, they oppose each other religiously. Moreover, the Taliban are not “peaceful” actors – as evidenced by the Taliban being an armed group, and also by the fact in 1998 the Taliban murdered 10 Iranian diplomats at Iran’s Mazar-i-Sharif consulate. Whilst the Iranian state has not publicly blamed the Taliban for the killings, they likely still harbour feelings about it – possibly holding them in contempt today. These feelings could come to the surface should the Taliban attack Iranian diplomats, or force their way into their missions. Unconfirmed reports say this possibly has happened.
Other parties they are in contact with likely include Afghan Shi’ite militias – particularly Iran-backed ones. Such actors are key players in the anti-Taliban coalition of militias. Iran would likely seek to influence with them to ensure Iranian interests remain in the country. Said influence would be key to Iran’s wider regional influence, having a stake in nation-building and in the most current conflict in the region. Further, Afghanistan signals a microcosm of a new world order – one where the United States is no longer the world’s policeman, and where the West has diminished influence over regional affairs. However, this would be a difficult thing to maintain with a Taliban monopoly on government. This fact would explain why Iran also revealed it desires for the establishment of an all-inclusive government – made up of all Afghans, and which would safeguard the rights of all. To Iran, naturally they would want such a government to include their Shi’ite allies. Therefore, helping achieve that will likely be Iran’s new Afghan policy going forward.
Meanwhile, the Afghanistan situation has also spurred an influx of Afghan refugees into its territory. Iran has long been the destination for Afghan refugees – already home to about 2 million. This time around, Iran’s security forces have responded by setting up refugee camps at the border to house Afghans who come to them. It has also promised jobs for the new arrivals. Iran though stresses such measures are temporary, expressing hope the refugees will “be repatriated” when the situation improves. Meanwhile, security forces have also begun securing the border – with border police saying they are monitoring the border, and are ready to confront any hostile action along it. They have also said they will “peacefully return” Afghans who have made “irregular crossings.” The last statement is unclear, but overall it seems likely that that there will be more flows of people coming over the border – especially considering Western countries are fast approaching their timeline for evacuating Afghan refugees. Iran could also shuts its borders altogether if refugee numbers continue to climb.
Israel does not have a direct interest in Afghanistan, and is largely shielded from the situation due to distance. However, Israel still has concerned itself with it. For example, it, along with seventy other countries, signed a statement by the U.S. State Department, calling for respecting and facilitating “the safe and orderly” exodus of refugees and foreign nationals from Afghanistan. It is unclear whether signing the statement was a means of showing support to its biggest ally, the United States. However, arguably Israel does have a stake in the conflict. Firstly, its ally has been the losing side in the conflict – with President Biden’s hasty withdrawal of U.S. troops being the match that lit the fire under Afghanistan. If the situation has demonstrated something, it is the region is more unstable than ever.
Further, it signals the U.S. cannot for sure be relied upon to secure the region. That message has likely set off warning signals in Israel – particularly with regards to the Iran situation. It is already clear that the latter has been emboldened – especially with the Taliban victory over the American superpower, but also through its impunity in maritime affairs. The former has had the impact of boosting morale in a country that despises the United States’ interference in the region. Such a morale boost is dangerous, as it could entice Iran to act belligerently – perhaps using Israel as a surrogate in the region. Explained, if Iran feels the United States is weak, it might try to attack the U.S.’s closest ally in the Middle East. The prospect of such action has probably made Israel defensive, and this has likely already given Israel’s unilateralism policy against Iran a boost. In short, Israel will likely be more self-reliant than ever. Notably, earlier this month Israel’s leadership has already said it is ready to attack Iran – with now the prospects of this coming to fruition being that much stronger.
Such unilateralism against Iran could also spark further action by Israel in Iran’s proxy countries (namely Lebanon and Syria), and perhaps also with the Palestinians. Or if not unilateralism, then it is possible the Afghanistan situation might have sparked room for bilateral action on the part of Israel and the United States. This is evident in Israel’s Prime Minister’s decision to lay out a new plan to deal with Iran when he comes to Washington for his visit. With the U.S.’s left feeling embarrassed by Afghanistan, coupled with its frustration with stalled nuclear talks, Biden could ‘bite’ and go with Israel’s hard-line plan – so as to prevent further instability and insecurity in the Middle East. That in turn could put an end to the Vienna talks, with escalation into further regional conflict.
The victory of an armed group fighting against a larger, colonising power is good optics for armed groups fighting against a larger power. In Palestine, the optics of this are indeed already playing out in how Hamas publicised a statement congratulating the Afghan people for defeating the U.S. and Western “occupation,” and also the Taliban for its victory. Use of the word “occupation” suggests a kinship, seeing the Afghan and Palestinian plights as one and the same. Similarly, one Hamas member also described the Taliban as an Islamist “liberation movement[s]” – a bit far-fetched view, but an expression of sentiment nevertheless. Therefore, such kinship, along with both groups considered to be Islamist-liberation movements, could suggest Hamas will seek closer ties with the Taliban in the future. Further, the inclusion of a picture of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and the leader of the Taliban seated together perhaps also suggests such efforts are already underway.
Going further, Hamas’ also theorised the U.S. / West’s defeat “is proof that the popular resistance, mainly our Palestinian militant people, will triumph and achieve the goals of freedom and return.” This is a clear sign the militant group has been emboldened in its fight against Israel. In short, it appears Hamas believes if the Taliban can be victorious in Afghanistan, then they can be in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The potential ramifications of this are Hamas will push harder to be a thorn in Israel’s side, until it makes high gains. Hamas aside, the other Palestinian militant group in Gaza already has historic ties to the Taliban: Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). One the group’s prominent leaders, Abdullah Azzam, one of the joined the Afghan insurgent group, and actually helped it develop its military capabilities. Therefore, there is real potential for deeper ties with the Taliban. You might also expect an exchange of weapons and training between them.
Meanwhile, at home, it is entirely possible that like Hamas, PIJ could go on to carry out more attacks on Israel. This would in the short term put an end to the recent peace treaty between Israel and Hamas. In the long-term however, such action could inspire a new generation of violent, unrelenting resistance against Israel – especially attacks on Israel’s southern communities.