Afghanistan is undergoing a significant and fundamental strategic change in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
In the last few weeks, Iran and Pakistan have had a flurry of meetings to discuss Afghanistan’s future amid the emerging situation. Arguably, Pakistan and Iran’s roles in Afghanistan have become pivotal to prevent another civil war among different ethnic and ideological factions.
In the past, Iran and Pakistan have supported different factions in Afghanistan in a bid to preserve their influence and interests. During the 1990s, Iran supported and armed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. In 1998, Taliban killed at least eight Iranian diplomats and correspondents in Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan in retaliation for Tehran’s support to its foes.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has actively supported Taliban for decades. Pakistan was among the three countries that recognized the group’s previous regime. This time around too, Islamabad is actively pushing the international community to work with the current Taliban regime.
To this day, tensions exist between Iran and Pakistan’s views in Afghanistan. For instance, Iran was unhappy with Pakistan’s alleged military support for the Taliban in the Panjshir Valley against the Northern Alliance’s resistance front led by Ahmad Shah Massoud’s son.
“Last night’s attacks are condemned in the strongest terms…and the foreign interference that you referred to must be investigated,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh told reporters in an apparent reference to Pakistan’s alleged role.
While there are differences in the Afghan policies of Pakistan and Iran, emerging geopolitical realities in the region seem to be forcing both countries to work together in Afghanistan.
In recent years, Iran has come to realize that working with the Taliban better suit its interests than promoting anti-Taliban fronts in an attempt to isolate the group. To an extent, this vision on Tehran’s end essentially binds it with Islamabad’s pro-Taliban Afghan policy.
Iran has cautiously welcomed the Taliban’s new regime, emphasizing that the country’s cooperation will depend on the behavior of Afghanistan’s new rulers. Crucial for Iran is how the Taliban regime will treat its ethnic minorities, particularly Shias, and whether it includes them in the new set-up. During a speech on August 28, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said: “The nature of our relations with governments depends on the nature of their relations with us.”
Iran and Pakistan’s political and military leaders have participated in several meetings that have called on the Taliban to honor their commitments.
Pakistan has also said that the international community should hold Afghanistan’s new rulers accountable with regards to their promises of forming an inclusive government and prohibiting militant groups from using Afghan soil against neighboring countries. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Imran Khan said, “After meetings in Dushanbe with leaders of Afghanistan’s neighbors…I have initiated a dialogue with the Taliban for an inclusive Afghan government to include Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.”
The focus of Pakistan and Iran on the formation of an inclusive government shows that there remains an understanding between the two countries to push for a regime that can bring stability to Afghanistan.
Moreover, both countries are apprehensive over the possibility of another refugee crisis on their borders. Iran and Pakistan host the largest Afghan refugee populations in the world. If another civil war broke out in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran would have to host thousands of Afghan refugees, which could potentially impact both countries security and economy. Thus, it remains in Pakistan and Iran’s interest to engage with the Taliban to prevent a civil war and a consequent refugee crisis.
Another motivation that could bring Iran and Pakistan together in Afghanistan is the Taliban’s ability to contain the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) in the country. Instability and conflict among different ethnic factions in Afghanistan could allow ISK to grow. If that happens, the group could become a major threat to both Iran and Pakistan in the coming weeks and months. ISK has shown willingness to attack both countries’ interests in the region. It only makes sense that Tehran and Islamabad join forces and work with the Taliban to tackle ISK’s threat from Afghanistan.
Pakistan and Iran have a rare opportunity to work together in Afghanistan not only to protect their mutual interests but also to ensure that the region doesn’t become a hotbed of terrorism and violence again.