The Debate

How Iran and Pakistan Matter for a Post-US Withdrawal Afghan Landscape

Strained relations with Pakistan coupled with a hostile posture toward Iran leave Washington stranded in Afghanistan.

By Adam Weinstein for
How Iran and Pakistan Matter for a Post-US Withdrawal Afghan Landscape
Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sharida Jackson

Strained relations with Pakistan and zero channels of communication with Iran isolate U.S. foreign policy ahead of negotiations with the Taliban and an imminent U.S. troop drawdown. Washington’s newfound acceptance of the Taliban as one of many stakeholders in a political settlement must be matched by a recognition that landlocked Afghanistan will rely on relations with its neighbors after a U.S. departure.

Four conditions arose soon after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that set the stage for a potential political settlement to the conflict. First, a robust U.S. bombing campaign routed the Taliban out of major Afghan cities including Kabul and Jalalabad. Second, U.S. special operations coupled with the bombing campaign killed or captured many transnational terrorists using the country as refuge. Others were pushed southward where Pakistani intelligence focused on terrorists from outside the region but largely ignored the Taliban. Third, Iran offered its assistance to the U.S. under the leadership of President Khatami and with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s blessing. Lastly, Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) appeared ready to facilitate a political solution that would offer the Taliban an ultimatum: participate politically in the new Afghanistan to survive or resist and be killed.

Tehran was content to see the Taliban government fall and tolerated a limited International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence along its border. Iran provided intelligence to the U.S. and leveraged its cultural ties with Afghanistan’s Dari-speaking population to help win their support for the presidency of Hamid Karzai. Iran also influenced the Bonn Agreement which produced an interim government exclusive of the Taliban that resulted from talks between key anti-Taliban stakeholders. It was the diplomatic intervention of Iran that convinced the Northern Alliance to accede to sharing enough ministries with other factions to facilitate cooperation. According to Alex Vatanka, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was popular “across the political spectrum in Iran” and “only a tiny minority of voices in Tehran bothered to raise the question of a lasting US military presence in Afghanistan, although this issue subsequently became a key concern for Iran.” President Bush’s inclusion of Iran in his 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech torpedoed this effort by emboldening hardliners which led in part to the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran’s threat perception shifted to view the Taliban as a counterweight to the U.S.

During this same period, Washington became reliant on Pakistan as both a supply route and partner in the Afghanistan conflict. In 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell conferred the status of major non-NATO ally on Pakistan and offered a $1.5 billion dollar military assistance package. According to a report by the Watson Institute at Brown University, approximately 8,832 Pakistani security personnel and 23,372 non-combatant civilians have been killed in the War on Terror. For perspective, the U.S. Department of Defense has reported 2,276 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan and the Watson Institute report calculated 6,951 total U.S. deaths in the War on Terror including Iraq and other locations.

Diplomatic coercion began to define U.S.-Pakistan relations as high casualties turned Pakistan’s public against the war. Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011. Washington’s primary criticism of Pakistan is its periodic support of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network even while it confronts other militant groups. The overall attitude of Pakistan’s military toward the Taliban is one of disdain; however, some within Pakistan’s security establishment predict a Taliban resurgence after a U.S. departure and view Islamist extremism as less of an ideological threat than Pashtun nationalism. They also worry about a strong Indian presence in Kabul. The U.S. adopted a strategy of triadic coercion in response to Islamabad’s inconsistent cooperation in which it uses diplomatic threats and withholds aid to compel Pakistan to abandon support for certain militant groups. However, this strategy failed to radically alter Islamabad’s calculation inside Afghanistan even though the Pakistan Army dealt a successful blow to the Pakistani Taliban.

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Lack of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington also proved a financial boon for the Taliban. At times, Tehran supported the group to harass U.S. troops and as a retaliation for Washington’s alleged support of Baloch separatist movements. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department designated an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) chief in the border city of Zahedan as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker of opium which helps fund the Taliban and accounts for 67 percent of narcotics consumption in Iran. A 249-page counternarcotics report published in 2018 by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) only mentions Iran five times despite the country’s key role as a transit route for Afghan opium. It concluded that despite $8.62 billion spent, no counternarcotics program “resulted in lasting reductions in poppy cultivation or opium production” and production rose from 3,400 metric tons to 9,000 metric tons. Many factors contributed to this loss but Washington’s failure to integrate Iran into its counternarcotics effort and incentivize cooperation certainly contributed.

Neither exclusion of Iran nor a coercive stance toward Pakistan has improved the situation in Afghanistan. Instead, the Taliban managed to maintain some relations with Pakistan and develop new ones with Iran and Russia. The most recent example is the announcement by Iranian state media that Tehran is hosting direct talks with the Taliban. In their book, Triple Axis: Iran’s Relations with Russia and China, Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai note that “although both Tehran and Moscow view the Taliban as a threat, they see the groups as the ‘lesser of two evils’ when weighed against [Islamic State Khorasan Province] ISKP, whose ideology, brutality, and recruitment efforts pose a greater threat to the two nations. Hence, Iran and Russia have provided support to Taliban groups since ISKP began to make gains in Afghanistan following the rise of ISIS in Iraq.” It comes down to a lack of confidence that the Taliban can be defeated militarily coupled with apprehension over the alternatives. Ultimately, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan have little ability to control the Taliban but their cooperation with an inclusive political settlement does have the potential to strengthen the Afghan state.

The Trump administration appears eager to reach a political settlement and leave Afghanistan. “I said that if the menace of terrorism is tackled, the United States is not looking for a permanent military presence in Afghanistan,” U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad reportedly told the Taliban delegation during recent talks. This approach is not a creation of the Trump administration. Speaking recently in Islamabad, former director for South Asian affairs at the Obama administration’s National Security Council, Joshua White, reiterated that the original justification for entering Afghanistan was to prevent a safe haven for transnational terrorists that more closely resemble Al-Qaeda and ISIS than the Taliban. According to former Adviser to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Barnett Rubin, “when [Secretary of Defense] Rumsfeld vetoed the agreement that Karzai made with the Taliban leadership on December 6, 2001, it’s not because he had a different strategy for achieving peace in Afghanistan, it’s because achieving peace in Afghanistan was not the reason the U.S. went into Afghanistan. It was to punish the terrorists and those who harbored them.”

If Trump’s intention is to leave Afghanistan, then Kabul will be pushed to diversify and strengthen its regional relationships regardless of Washington’s other initiatives. For example, the importance to Afghanistan’s stability of India’s $21 billion project to develop Iran’s Chabahar port  forced the Trump administration to grant a sanctions waiver despite its departure from the Iran nuclear deal. According to a Rand report, bilateral trade between Iran and Afghanistan amounted to almost $5 billion in 2013 and Iran was India’s third largest oil supplier in 2017. In Pakistan, the army has made great strides in securing its border and reducing terrorism within its own territory. However, full cooperation from Tehran and Islamabad will require a durable political settlement that presents some immediate benefits to all regional actors.

The Bush administration simultaneously alienated Iran as a potential anti-Taliban ally and rejected offers from Pakistan to facilitate a political solution with Taliban elements that may have been willing to function within the parameters of the new Afghan state. The Obama administration unsuccessfully attempted to overcome the mistakes of its predecessor with a troop surge. Recreating the missed opportunities of 2001-02 nearly two decades later will require the Trump administration to decouple Afghan negotiations from its other regional objectives, prioritize the long-term interests of the Afghan people, and resist the temptation to view influence in Afghanistan as a zero-sum game when stability requires the cooperation of multiple actors, including Iran, Pakistan, India, and Russia.

Adam Weinstein is a policy associate at the National Iranian American Council. He is a veteran of the Marine Corps where he served in Afghanistan. He tweets at @AdamNoahWho.