How and Why Ankara and Tehran Compete Over Afghanistan

 

 

How and Why Ankara and Tehran Compete Over Afghanistan

 

By: Hilal Khashan

Afghanistan is not a country that lends itself to domination by sheer force. Its rugged, mountainous terrain makes it impossible for a foreign military, no matter how powerful, to conquer and occupy the country. Indeed, after 20 years of war, even the United States was unable to effect much lasting change there. However, smaller states that share historical, cultural and religious values with the Afghans are better positioned to achieve their objectives in the country than culturally distinct nations, regardless of how many resources they expend. Thus, in the United States’ absence, Iran and Turkey will compete for influence over Afghanistan, with which both countries share historical and cultural ties. Afghanistan’s fluid political and security situation following the U.S. pullout will present challenges for Iran and opportunities for Turkey. But stability or even a semblance of peace will remain elusive.

Tehran’s Objectives

Relations between Iran and Afghanistan have ebbed and flowed since 1722, when the Afghans invaded Persia and occupied Isfahan, the capital of the Safavid Empire. Even after the Afghans’ defeat in 1730, water issues marred relations between the two countries, until they finally signed the Treaty of Friendship in 1921. Today, Iran and its new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi, seem determined to expand Tehran’s regional influence into Afghanistan as well as Central Asia, the Caucasus, the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

Tehran is angling to become Afghanistan’s main economic benefactor, hoping to form a relationship with the Taliban similar to Turkey’s relationship with Northern Cyprus. But incompatible religious ideology and Iran’s cooperation in America's 2001 invasion are significant obstacles.

Iran allowed the Taliban to open offices in several Iranian cities and provided living quarters for the families of many Taliban leaders. Afghans, however, view Iran’s behavior with suspicion. A few years ago, Iran tried to pit the Shiite Hazaras against the Taliban to justify the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ intervention in Afghanistan. IRGC forces masqueraded as members of an Afghan Shiite militia called the Fatemiyoun Division to try to coerce the militants to establish a Shiite state in Afghanistan – which ultimately failed.


The Iranians are deeply concerned about the Taliban’s resurgence, despite publicly claiming to be happy about the U.S. departure. Iran wants to see a fragile Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban to obstruct Turkish intervention plans and secure more water supplies from the Helmand River for its water-scarce border areas. A stable Afghanistan would enable the country to protect its own supplies from Iranian interference. Iran does not believe the Taliban will maintain a firm hold over the country and is devising a plan to create a militia loyal to Tehran similar to the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq.

Iran has avoided publicly criticizing the Taliban, hoping to play a peacekeeper role in Afghanistan. Tehran has even encouraged local media to praise the group for driving U.S. forces out of the country. It presents itself as a partner of Afghanistan, providing much-needed energy supplies to help ease its economic collapse. There’s at least one opponent of Tehran’s official stance on the Taliban, however. Last month, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the Iranian people did not support Tehran’s Afghanistan policy, believing that their country’s meager resources should instead be used for economic development.

Ankara’s Hopes

Unlike Iran, which shares a 900-kilometer (560-mile) border with Afghanistan, Turkey is geographically distant from the war-torn country. Still, it sees an opportunity to influence the outcome there. Despite the Taliban’s warning against Turkey keeping its 500-strong military contingent in Kabul beyond the end of August, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thinks he can strike a deal with the group through Qatar, which has close ties with the Taliban. And indeed, the Taliban have promised to maintain cordial relations with their near and distant neighbors – except for India because of its human rights record relating to its Muslim minority. On India, Turkey and the Taliban share a common approach. The Taliban support the Islamist insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir, and Turkey has strong relations with the Popular Front of India, a militant Islamist movement, and the insurrectionist Jamaat-e-Islami in Kashmir.

Turkey’s involvement in Afghanistan is also part of Ankara’s strategy to repair its strained relations with Washington. It participated in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan since its establishment in 2001. It could also help mediate between the Taliban and Washington as the crisis unfolds. Last week, the Biden administration froze the Afghan central bank’s reserves in the U.S. totaling $10 billion. It also convinced the International Monetary Fund to suspend Kabul’s access to $440 million in funds until the country could meet certain conditions. Given the Taliban’s urgent need for cash, they will likely be open to dialogue with a mediator like Ankara.

For the U.S. and its Western allies, one of their key objectives is containing Russian and Chinese influence in Afghanistan. Washington is keen on slowing down China’s economic progress and preventing Russia from restoring its lost influence in Central Asia. The U.S. considers Russo-Chinese activity in South and Central Asia the most significant threat to its national security. As the rivalry between these major powers accelerates, Afghanistan’s importance as a critical juncture linking China, Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran will increase.

In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Islamabad and launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of Beijing’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, which drew mixed reactions in Pakistan. Given Pakistanis’ skepticism about BRI, Turkey can use its friendship with Pakistan to temper its relations with the United States. The U.S. sees an opportunity in the CPEC controversy to derail Chinese influence in the region and bring Pakistan back into the U.S. fold, using Turkey as an intermediary.

For Moscow, the primary concern in Afghanistan is the potential for the instability there to spill over into Russia – namely Chechnya, Dagestan and Tatarstan – and its neighbors in Central Asia, specifically Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The prospect of establishing Islamic emirates in these countries and regions, similar to the Taliban’s self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, is not far-fetched. Iran has similar fears in its restive Sunni-populated Baluchistan region.

Turkey wants to increase pressure on countries competing for influence in the Middle East and Central Asia – Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia – by influencing the Taliban’s foreign policy, hoping that this will give Ankara an edge. Maintaining a degree of soft power in Afghanistan would increase its prestige in NATO and open a new chapter in relations with the United States. Erdogan has tried to make the case that his country is well positioned to mediate with the Taliban, recently saying that Turkey is “the only reliable country left” that could help stabilize Afghanistan.

Turkey’s involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia has alarmed many Turks, who argue that the country’s resources are being spread too thin. In addition to deploying troops in Libya, Syria and Iraq, Turkey established military bases in Qatar and Somalia and played a game-changing role in last year’s conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh.

The opposition Republican People’s Party has criticized Erdogan’s Afghanistan policy and called for an immediate withdrawal of Turkish troops from the country. Erdogan’s opponents believe he wants to drag Turkey into the Afghan quagmire and replace the United States as the major power in the country. Erdogan seems undeterred, however.

It’s likely that anarchy and civil war will return to Afghanistan. For most Afghans, the idea of the state is nebulous. The fragmentation of the population into tribal ethnicities and sectarian identities makes it difficult to create a unified collective consciousness. What seems to matter most right now is foreign rivalry while the Taliban attempt to construct a pristine Islamic emirate.

 

Geopolitical Future, 25/08/2021

 


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