The nature of the war in Afghanistan has shifted dramatically in recent months. While the US and Nato continue to be actively involved in the country — their strategic objectives having changed very little since the Bush administration launched the war in 2001 — the complexion of the battlefield, and the parties actively engaged in the war, has changed significantly.
The emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan, along with the recently-announced delay in the withdrawal of US troops from the country, has driven the Taliban into a marriage of convenience with Iran. What seemed like an unimaginable scenario only a few years ago — Shia Iran’s support for the hardline Sunni Taliban — has become a reality due to the changing circumstances of the war. Though it is hard to believe, such an alliance is now a critical element of the on-ground situation in Afghanistan. But its significance is far greater than just shifting the balance of power within the country.
Afghanistan is now, in many ways, a proxy conflict between the US and its Western and Gulf allies on the one hand, and Iran and some non-Western countries, most notably China, on the other. If the contours of the conflict might not be immediately apparent, it is only because the Western media has failed to present the conflict in its true context. The narrative on Afghanistan continues to be about terrorism and stability, nation-building and “support”. But it’s a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of the current war, and the agenda driving it.
And what’s this new and dangerous agenda? It’s about no less than the future of Afghanistan and Central Asia. It’s about the US and its allies clinging to the country, a key foothold in the region, and wanting to find any pretext to maintain their presence. It’s about Iran and China positioning themselves in the country for the inevitable moment of US withdrawal and the opening up of Afghanistan’s economy. At the most basic level, it’s about access and influence. And, as usual in this part of the world, terrorism and extremism are the most potent weapons.
The New Afghan War: Enter ISIS
The incident that officially put ISIS on the Afghanistan’s map was a mass beheading by ISIS militants in the strategically vital Ghazni province, an important region of the country that lies on the Kabul-Kandahar highway.
While the Western media was replete with stories of ISIS and Taliban factions fighting together under the Islamic State’s banner, it has become clear since then that, rather than collaboration between the groups, there has simply been a steady migration of fighters from the Taliban to ISIS. In fact, the last few months have demonstrated that there is, in fact, a competition between the two, and that Taliban and ISIS have fought each other in very intense battles. As Abdul Hai Akhondzada, deputy head of the Afghan parliament’s national security commission, told a news agency:
“Local residents and security officials confirmed that “Islamic State” (IS) fighters killed between 10 and 15 Taliban members in Nangarhar province…The Taliban have been fighting for a long period of time in Afghanistan and they see their position threatened by the emergence of IS. Of course, they won’t give up easily… While IS is fighting to increase its presence in the whole region — not in Afghanistan only — the Taliban are fighting to overthrow the Afghan government.”
Such skirmishes have now become a regular occurrence, pointing to a growing war between ISIS and Taliban factions. Increasingly, the war is being transformed from one waged by the Taliban against the Kabul government and its US and Nato patrons, into a war with competing groups fighting each other for supremacy on the battlefield and in the political life of the country.
But, of course, the true nature of the conflict can only be understood through an examination of the key interests backing each side. And it’s here where the shadowy world of terror factions and proxy armies are brought into the light of the day.
It’s now no secret that ISIS is an asset of Western intelligence agencies and governments. The group has been directly sponsored and facilitated and/or allowed to develop unhindered in order to serve a useful purposes in Syria and Iraq. As the now infamous secret 2012 US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) document obtained by Judicial Watch revealed, the US has knowingly promoted the spread of the Islamic State since at least 2012 in order to use it as a weapon against the Assad government.
Moreover, intelligence agencies such as Turkish intelligence agency, Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), have been facilitating ISIS militants crossing the border into Syria, as well as supporting an international network of terrorists to as far away as the Xinjiang province of China. Even US Vice President Joe Biden has noted that:
“Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria. The Turks were great friends… [and] the Saudis, the Emirates, etcetera. What were they doing?…They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad — except that the people who were being supplied, [they] were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world.”
Given all this information, it’s beyond a shadow of doubt that ISIS, to a large degree, is an asset of the US and its Western allies. As if one needed further confirmation of this point, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, himself no stranger to the machinations of US intelligence, bluntly declared that ISIS could not possibly have expanded into Afghanistan “without a foreign hand, without foreign backing.”
In Syria and Iraq, ISIS has essentially done the dirty work for the US and its Gulf and Israeli and Turkish allies. In Libya, ISIS has become a dominant terrorist force led by a documented US asset. In Yemen, ISIS has gained a foothold and carried out terrorist actions in support of the Saudi — and by extension, US — mission against the Shia Houthi rebels and their allies. Taken in total then, ISIS has proved very effective in furthering the US-Nato-GCC-Israel agenda. So too in Afghanistan!
Iran-Taliban Alliance to Counter ISIS
And it’s for this reason that the Taliban have turned to Iran for support. Though Tehran has officially denied providing any weapons or financial support to the Taliban, sources in the region have confirmed that indeed such support is given. A senior Afghan government official speaking to the Wall Street Journal explained succinctly that, “At the beginning, Iran was supporting [the] Taliban financially. But now they are training and equipping them, too.” Afghan security officials have claimed that Iran is hosting Taliban militants at training camps in the cities of Tehran, Mashhad and Zahedan, and in the province of Kerman. If true, it means that the level of cooperation between the two has moved to a whole new level.
While one might want to maintain some scepticism about all the claims made by US and Afghan officials regarding Iranian support for the Taliban, the alliance makes good strategic sense for Tehran. As Iran fights against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, so too must it check the spread of this terror group in neighbouring Afghanistan. Moreover, Iran understands that ISIS is, in effect, an arm of the power projection of its regional rivals Turkey and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have been primary instigators of the war in Syria and the attempt to break the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah alliance. Therefore, from the Iranian perspective, the Taliban’s war against ISIS in Afghanistan is essentially a new theatre in the larger war against ISIS and its backers.
Additionally, there is still another important political rationale behind Tehran’s overtures to the Taliban: leverage and access. Iran is preparing for the impending departure of US-Nato forces from Afghanistan, and it desperately wants to make sure it has friends in the new government which will likely include some key members of the Taliban in important positions. And the recent moves by the Taliban to engage in peace talks only further this point; Iran wants to be part of a peace deal that could unite the non-ISIS forces in Afghanistan thereby giving Tehran both access and, most importantly, influence over the decision-making apparatus in an independent Afghanistan.
China and the New Afghanistan
Iran certainly has partners in the charm offensive toward the Taliban, most notably China. During the last few months rumours were abound that China has played host to a Taliban delegation interested in peace talks with the Kabul government, a move which threatens to fundamentally alter the balance of power in Afghanistan and the region. Assuming the reports are true, China is positioning itself to become the single most important player in a post-occupation Afghanistan. In this way, Beijing has become the key intermediary in the peace process in Afghanistan, a development which is likely to cause a fair amount of consternation in Washington.
China has a multitude of reasons for pushing so hard for this dialogue process.
First and foremost, China sees in Afghanistan one of the main keys to its entire regional, and indeed global, strategy, from the New Silk Road to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Sitting in the middle of the strategically critical Central Asia, Afghanistan represents for China both a bridge to its partner, Pakistan, and the key to the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia. Moreover, it represents a critical node in the potential pipeline networks as well as trading routes.
Beijing also intends to be a major player in the exploitation of the mineral wealth of Afghanistan. The US Geological Survey has estimated that Afghanistan’s mineral resources are worth roughly $1 trillion, making it one of the most prized lands in the world. Iron, copper, cobalt, gold, lithium and many other minerals are to be found just underneath the surface of Afghanistan; clearly an enticing prospect for China. Indeed, China has already heavily invested in copper mining concessions among others.
It’s in this arena where China and its long-time rival India have come into conflict, as Delhi has also been competing for key mining concessions in Afghanistan, including the vast iron ore deposits. Iran also figures into this question as its port of Chabahar, seen as an important prize for both India and China, is the likely destination for the iron ore extracted from Afghanistan, especially if it’s to be shipped to India.
Not to be overlooked, of course, is the security issue. China’s ongoing struggle against extremists in Xinjiang has led to fears in Beijing that any economic plans could be jeopardized by terrorism-related instability. Xinjiang has seen a number of deadly terrorist attacks in the last eighteen months, including the heinous drive-by bombings that killed dozens and injured over 100 people in May 2014, the mass stabbings and bombings of November 2014.
And it’s here where all these issues converge. China needs Iran both for economic and counter-terrorism reasons. Beijing wants to see Iran act as the driving force in the battle against ISIS terrorism in Afghanistan, as well as in the Middle East, in order to destroy the Saudi-backed and Turkey-backed terror networks that support the Uighur extremists. China also wants to be an active player in Afghanistan in order to both buttress its own national security and to instigate itself as the central economic force in the region. The strategic imperatives couldn’t be clearer.
Seen in this way, Afghanistan is at the very heart of both China’s and Iran’s regional plans. And this fact, more than any other, explains exactly the purpose that ISIS serves in Afghanistan. From the perspective of Washington, nothing could serve US imperial ambitions more effectively than a destabilization of Afghanistan both as justification for continued occupation, and to block Chinese penetration.
So, once again, we see ISIS as the convenient tool of Western power projection. No doubt strategic planners in Tehran and Beijing see it too. The question is: will they be able to stop it?
Courtesy: Counter Punch