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Afghanistan: With Taliban in power, Iran and Gulf states will vie for influence

Much remains uncertain about the future of Afghanistan. But it is all but guaranteed that regional powers will continue to jockey for influence there
The head of Afghanistan's High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, Qatar's envoy Mutlaq al-Qahtani, and the leader of the Taliban negotiating team Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in Doha on 18 July 2021 (AFP)

Following the Taliban’s stunning takeover of Afghanistan on 15 August, diplomats in Kabul braced for evacuation. Predictably, the US and other western missions quickly packed their bags; more surprisingly, the embassies of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also jumped ship.

After two decades of bloody and futile conflict, it is hard to imagine Washington renewing its failed campaign to quash the movement

The move was striking because the two Gulf countries were the only nations, along with Pakistan, to recognise the isolated Taliban emirate in the 1990s. But then came further proof of a froideur between the UAE and Taliban when it was announced that Abu Dhabi had welcomed the fleeing former Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani.

The rift between the militant group and its erstwhile Gulf allies has been widening for years, largely due to the Taliban’s closer ties to their principal adversaries, Qatar and Iran, and could now escalate into a more serious conflict if the regional rivals back different armed actors in Afghanistan.

In 2013 Doha beat the UAE and Saudi to host the Taliban’s political office, which has been the centre of its regional diplomacy. While Riyadh and Abu Dhabi reportedly insisted that the Taliban renounce Al Qaeda as a condition for hosting the group, Qatar’s offer came with no strings attached. 

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Since then, Qatar has played a central role in negotiations between the insurgents and foreign powers, hosting peace talks that culminated in the signing of the Doha agreement in February 2020. When the Taliban political commission flew into Kandahar last week, it was revealing that they travelled on a Qatari Air Force plane. 

Qatar has been able to cultivate a close relationship with the Taliban, in part, because of its neutrality in the war. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, by contrast, severed relations with the Taliban emirate quickly after 9/11 and supported the US-led intervention in Afghanistan that toppled the regime, with the UAE even contributing troops

Saudi Arabia has taken other steps that have not endeared it to the Taliban, for example forming closer ties with the Afghan government of former President Ghani, convening a conference of scholars in 2018 that sought to discredit the militant group’s jihad, or attempting to split the movement by peeling away anti-Iranian Taliban elements. 

A complex strategy

Tehran has for the past decade or so extended sanctuary and support to the Taliban, reportedly hosting a shura in Mashhad and providing military advice. This is an inversion of the 1990s, when Iran backed the resistance against the Taliban emirate – known as the Northern Alliance – and almost went to war with the regime. 

Tehran is now well-placed to reap the rewards of its relationship with the Taliban

Interaction between the two sides has increased. Taliban delegations have travelled regularly to Iran in recent years - more than they have to Saudi Arabia or the UAE. Tehran has been at the table in various multilateral initiatives to resolve the conflict, including the Moscow Format and Kabul Process

But Iran is not entirely in the Taliban camp. It has pursued a complex hedging strategy in Afghanistan, supporting both the government and the insurgents, while reportedly deploying its Shia militia, the Fatemiyoun, to the country, so as to amplify its influence with whichever faction proved victorious in the war.

Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces rest during military training at the Abdullah Khil area of Dara district in Panjshir province on August 24, 2021
Afghan resistance movement forces rest during military training at the Abdullah Khil area of Dara district in Panjshir province on 24 August 2021 (AFP)

That, of course, turned out to be the Taliban, and Tehran is now well-placed to reap the rewards of its relationship with the group. Iran has kept its embassy in Kabul open, pointing to possible diplomatic recognition, and there are many reasons, ranging from trade to migration to counter-narcotics, for the two sides to cooperate.

The stage is set for regional powers to vie for influence in Afghanistan. But a proxy conflict will look different from the 1990s. Back then, Pakistan, Saudi and the UAE backed the Taliban; Iran, Russia, and China supported the anti-Taliban opposition.

The two Gulf monarchies now have strained ties with the Taliban, while Tehran, Moscow and Beijing support them. Pakistan, moreover, is no longer as cosy with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as it was in the 1990s owing to those states' growing proximity to India and their silence on the Kashmir issue.

No American clout

The US would likely stay on the sidelines in such a contest. After two decades of bloody and futile conflict, it is hard to imagine Washington renewing its failed campaign to quash the movement.

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The lack of American clout would mitigate whatever efforts Saudi Arabia and the UAE may choose to undertake.

In Yemen, both powers had the support of the US and UK; that would likely not be the case here. But Iran showed with its modest backing for the Houthis that it is possible to cause serious pain to its adversaries with limited means.

True, the lifting of the Qatar blockade in January and the slight improvement in relations between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran in recent months suggest the regional conflict is de-escalating and may not spill over into other theatres, like Afghanistan. The coronavirus and Saudi Arabia’s economic problems mean that Riyadh may have bigger fish to fry. 

But grievances with Qatar persist over its alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood and hosting of a Turkish military base, or the role of Al Jazeera. And while Riyadh has improved ties with Doha, Abu Dhabi – the driving force behind the blockade - has still not resumed diplomatic relations.

In the case of Iran, the Biden administration’s determination to return to the nuclear deal – abrogated by former US President Donald Trump – has caused alarm in Gulf capitals that they may soon face a stronger Tehran empowered by money from sanctions relief. That fear gives them an incentive to chip away at Iranian influence in Afghanistan.

A new proxy war

They could do this by funding anti-Taliban armed groups, such as Daesh, and fuelling sectarian warfare in Afghanistan, where Iran's Fatemiyoun militia has reportedly been operating. Another possibility for those seeking to destabilise the Taliban regime is the nascent resistance movement led by the son of legendary Afghan guerrilla commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud.

The UAE’s hosting of Ghani may be the opening salvo in a new proxy war

It is still unclear if this effort has any legs, but Massoud's enclave in the Panjshir has still not fallen to the Taliban and there are unconfirmed rumours of support for his campaign from Tajikistan. This week, the Tajik president cast doubt on his country's recognition of the new Afghan regime.

Either way, renewed instability in Afghanistan is very unwelcome for Iran, which would continue to face elevated drug and refugee flows from its neighbour, not to mention reduced trade and investment opportunities.

Much remains uncertain about the future of Afghanistan. But it is all but guaranteed that regional powers will continue to jockey for influence there. The UAE’s hosting of Ghani may be the opening salvo in a new proxy war. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Rupert Stone
Rupert Stone is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist working on South Asia and the Middle East