Recent revelations that Iran and Russia have explored further cooperation with the Taliban caught attention in Western capitals. Tehran’s involvement with the insurgent group is old news but Moscow’s carefully orchestrated confession comes at a dangerous juncture for the United States and its war in Afghanistan, Washington’s longest ever.
Besides Pakistan, the Taliban’s traditional patron, Washington is in particular concerned about the legitimacy the Taliban are achieving in regional capitals, which will spell disaster for the U.S. presence.
Despite the nuclear deal with Tehran, many in Iran believe that Washington cannot be trusted to keep up its part of the deal. This comes on the heels of the election victory by Donald Trump and his hawkish campaign talk vis-à-vis the pact. Trump has frequently said he will scrap the deal on day one. This has raised eyebrows in Tehran and sparked a search for possible contingency plans. With American involvement in Iraq, and now Syria as well, Tehran feels encircled and certainly threatened by the incoming administration.
The unpredictability of a Trump White House is pushing Tehran to adapt a more conciliatory approach toward the Taliban. When then-Taliban chief Mullah Mansour was killed in a U.S. drone strike, he was travelling from the southern town of Mashad, Iran to Quetta, Pakistan. The relationship has earned the Taliban’s office in Iran the “Mashad Shura” moniker. However, such ties have largely been ignored due to Tehran’s focus on monetary funding to the group and not so much hosting a physical leadership presence within its boundaries.
Iran has now upped the stakes in its relationship with the Taliban. Tehran used to hide visits by the insurgent group but now Iran has openly invited Taliban leaders to an Islamic conference, describing them as “moderate.”
Russia, on the other hand, is back to Cold War shenanigans, only the role has been reversed. Americans are now in Afghanistan and Moscow wants to play the role of the liberator from foreign occupation — even though on paper and in media the Russians approve of NATO and Resolute Support carrying out operations in Afghanistan. The Kremlin smells an opportunity to bleed Washington in Afghanistan, the same way Washington split open the Soviet Union about three decades ago.
The problem with this approach is that popular support is on the Americans’ side in Afghanistan. During the Soviet occupation, large parts of the population were disenfranchised and accepted mujaheddin to drive out the Red Army, who committed mass atrocities. Washington, on the other hand, has the goodwill of people on its side despite failures to bring lasting security or peace.
It is precisely this insecurity that Moscow now wants to manipulate and exploit against the Americans. A recent Asia Foundation survey indicates that 66 percent of the Afghan population is now pessimistic about the direction the country is heading in, with insecurity indicated as the major factor.
In engaging the Taliban, Moscow also sees another opportunity to cajole Islamabad and bring it into Russia’s circle, as Islamabad-Washington relations have deteriorated. Pakistan has traditionally supported anti-government elements in Afghanistan and the Taliban have been their prodigies since inception. With Tehran, Islamabad, and Moscow teaming up to pull the strings in Afghanistan, a Trump administration will have to up the ante in its fight against insurgents, to secure the future of Afghanistan free from foreign influence and to protect American interests.
Moscow would like to capitalize on gains achieved by the Taliban and make them look larger than they actually are to convince the world that American efforts are unpopular and thus Washington should reduce its footprint. With the Middle East imploding and the European Union going through unprecedented political upheaval, Vladimir Putin senses a chance to exact Cold War revenge and push Washington to a shameful retreat.
For all their battlefield resilience, the Taliban find themselves in uncharted waters. The group has split and their finances are a mess. The gap between older generation Taliban members and new generation foot soldiers is damning. The old guard is susceptible to peace talks and still carries the vision and history of their founder (albeit without success), but the new generation is out of touch and more likely to be sold for a higher price. Moreover, the leadership has been severely depleted following Mansour’s death and the inevitable operational takeover by the Haqqani Network — a far more ruthless group firmly controlled by Pakistan’s intelligence service — who now calls the shots.
The differences that Islamabad, Tehran and Moscow have with Washington will bring the battle to Kabul. The challenge for Trump administration will be to keep its fragile relationships with Islamabad and Moscow and balance Tehran’s aggressive policies in the region. By stuffing his cabinet with hardliners on Tehran, Trump is testing Iranian anxiety and as a consequence Tehran is gearing toward a more proactive and bellicose role in Afghanistan to hedge its bets. Tehran’s enemy is not the Afghan government (though Tehran wishes to keep Kabul under the gun) but Washington. With the Taliban, Iran can create a wedge and distraction for American forces to focus on instead of shifting attention toward Tehran.
Meanwhile, Islamabad does not want to directly confront Washington but their main target is to always have Afghanistan under its control. Moscow on the other hand is squarely focused on derailing any American achievement — be it in Afghanistan or Syria or the wider Middle East. The onus is on Trump and American policymakers to figure out how to keep Afghanistan out of the jaws of Moscow, Tehran, and Islamabad while keeping Americans safe and protecting U.S. interests.
Atta Nasib is a former U.S. and Afghan government official. He is a commentator on Af-Pak and South Asia. He tweets at @NasibAtta. The views expressed here are his own.