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As Afghanistan’s neighbours jostle for influence over Taliban, divisions emerge

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Taliban members and airport staff are seen outside Kabul’s airport. While the new regime in Afghanistan seeks diplomatic recognition, its neighbours are working out how to deal with its takeover. Photo: AP

Splits have developed between Afghanistan’s neighbours as they compete for influence over the new Taliban regime, threatening to divide the six countries into competing camps.

Iran’s newly-elected hardline government abandoned its neutral wait-and-see approach on Monday, following the Taliban’s defeat of Afghan resistance forces in the Panjshir Valley.

Tehran also responded to unsubstantiated claims that Pakistan’s military had carried out drone strikes against the Taliban’s opponents, saying it had requested clarification. It chose to go public on the matter, despite a telephone conversation on Sunday between its new foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

Since the Taliban takeover of Kabul on August 15, Qureshi has worked to unite Afghanistan’s neighbours on a single diplomatic platform to establish the primacy of their influence in Kabul and prevent them from being drawn into opposing geopolitical camps by their respective rivals in the region.

On Sunday, Pakistan hosted a videoconference between the Afghanistan envoys of all six neighbours, including Iran, China, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Tehran’s resistance to Islamabad’s extraordinary influence over the Taliban coincided with an unusually high profile visit to Kabul by the chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed.

The ISI has long been accused by the West of providing safe havens in Pakistan and other support to the Taliban, enabling the Islamist insurgents to survive the 20-year US-led Nato occupation of Afghanistan and ultimately seize power amid their withdrawal in August.

The extent of Hameed’s influence became evident on Tuesday when the Taliban announced a cabinet in which Pakistan’s opponents within the movement were denied promotions, analysts Ibrahim Bahiss of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group and Faran Jeffrey of the Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism organisation in Britain noted on Twitter.

Most prominent were Mullah Baradar Akhundzada, who had been tipped to become caretaker prime minister, and Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, previously the Taliban’s Doha-based chief negotiator and favourite for foreign minister. They were made first deputy prime minister and deputy foreign minister respectively.

Commanders who previously took refuge in Iran and were close to ex-Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansoor were excluded altogether, the analysts said. Mansoor was assassinated in a US drone strike in Pakistan in 2016.

“General Faiz [Hameed] did in one trip what [US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay] Khalilzad could not in 100 trips,” Bahiss quipped.

Michael Kugelman, senior South Asia associate at the Wilson Centre in Washington, noted that the Pakistani ISI chief visited Kabul when “there were internal Taliban disputes over the formation of its new government”.

“Then, just like that, the new Taliban government was announced. I think we have a clear indication of one reason why he made his visit when he did.”

Iran based its subsequent criticism of the Taliban’s caretaker cabinet on the exclusion of minority ethnic groups. Of the 33 men appointed, 30 were ethnic Pashtun, while only two ethnic Tajiks and one Uzbek were included, Bahiss said.

“The first priority for Afghanistan is stability and peace. Ignoring the need for establishing an inclusive government, foreign intervention, and the use of military means instead of dialogue to meet the ethnic and social groups’ demands are the main concerns of the Afghans’ friends,” said Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, in a statement on Wednesday.

Influential Iranian analyst Mohammad Marandi blamed Pakistan and its relationships with the US and its Sunni Muslim Middle Eastern allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey for the non-inclusiveness of the Taliban cabinet.

“The Taliban has a dark past. In recent years their leaders changed course and abided by commitments to Iran,” said Marandi.

“Now US regional allies are backing extreme factions in the Taliban. Pakistani ISI is not pushing for a non-Taliban Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek share [of power]. There is a danger of civil war.”

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Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has made efforts to unite Afghanistan’s neighbours. Photo: EPA-EFE

Iran’s concerns

Kugelman said Iran’s messages expressing concern about the Taliban government were “striking, given that Tehran has developed a cordial relationship with the Taliban in recent years”.

“What could be at play here is Iran signalling that its concerns about the Shia community in Afghanistan shouldn’t be taken lightly, and that their lack of representation in the government is a major issue,” he told SCMP.

“There may also be an element of nationalism here, with Tehran’s new hardline leader wanting to make clear that Iran will take principled positions on its core interests in Afghanistan. And if that means being publicly critical of the Taliban for trying to sideline Shia leaders, then so be it.”

Professor Michaël Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute of European and Security Policy, said Iran could not afford to return to the status quo of the 1990s when the Taliban first held sway over Afghanistan.

“Back then, Iran was surrounded by a ‘Sunni Wall’ constructed by Saudi Arabia starting in the 1980s with Riyadh’s support of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein on its western border and its support for Pakistan’s dictator General Zia-ul-Haq and his programme of sponsoring anti-Iranian mujahedin organisations in Afghanistan,” said Tanchum, who is also a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

The Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan in the second half of the 1990s made it an essential pillar in Saudi Arabia’s containment strategy, he said.

With its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s, the US “dismantled Saudi Arabia’s containment ring without any serious consideration of the consequences of Iran’s regional ambitions”, Tanchum said.

“The advance of Iranian influence in Iraq has proven disastrous for Saudi Arabia’s security. Neither Riyadh nor Islamabad can afford an expansion of Iranian influence in Afghanistan on a similar scale.”

India, China

Prominent among Pakistan’s reasons for wanting to maintain a dominant influence over Afghanistan is its enmity with India.

Denied overland access to Afghanistan by Pakistan, India is developing an alternative sea-land route via the eastern Iranian port of Chabahar to rival the nearby Chinese operated port of Gwadar in Pakistan.

Gwadar is a focal point of the estimated US$65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to build infrastructure along the sole overland link from Xinjiang to the Arabian Sea.

In March, China signed a 25-year strategic partnership agreement with Iran which could see investments on a comparable scale to CPEC. However, that depends greatly on Iran and the US agreeing on the terms of Washington’s return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of US sanctions.

“The traditional chess game of Iran and India loosely cooperating in Afghanistan to counter Pakistan no longer applies as the geostrategic chess board has changed with the rise of China,” Tanchum said.

“Unlike the 1990s, China is an economic powerhouse able to lend substantial economic support to the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Beijing’s own forward-leaning posture makes it interested in creating vital commercial connectivity via Afghanistan to both Iran and Pakistan” such as the five-nation railway connecting China to Iran via northern Afghanistan, he said.

The Wilson Centre’s Kugelman expected China to seek to calm tensions between Pakistan and Iran.

“I think Beijing would like to bring Pakistan and Iran under the same tent in Afghanistan, with shared efforts to curb terrorism and court investment,” he said. “Generally speaking, there is a convergence in views here: all three want Isis to be weakened, and all three understand the merits of infrastructure development.”

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Taliban soldiers stand in front of protesters during the anti-Pakistan protest in Kabul on September 7. Photo: Reuters

The analysts This Week In Asia spoke to – including several who declined to comment – said it is too early to tell whether Afghanistan’s neighbours would continue to work together or fall apart.

“I’m not sure I envision competing blocs,” said Kugelman, who sees an emerging partnership involving China, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey and several Central Asian states focused on developing connectivity projects.

“There’s no reason why Iran can’t be a part of this effort,” Kugelman said. “But clearly the odd country out is India. It will struggle to find partners of its own, though its still-strong partnership with Russia should help, and it will look to supportive countries in Central Asia.”

Russia’s national security adviser Nikolay Patrushev met his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval in New Delhi on Wednesday, and Doval met CIA director Bill Burns a day earlier.

Russia has so far rebuffed India’s requests to be given a proverbial seat at the Afghanistan table, specifically through its Troika Plus forum including Washington, Beijing and Pakistan.

However, Pakistani political analyst Najam Sethi said the meetings in New Delhi suggested that the West, Russia and India shared concerns about Pakistan becoming the dominant influencer in Afghanistan.

“India is telling Russia to include them at the table on Afghanistan, that they will support Russia and they have shared interests, to prevent Pakistan from seizing power,” Sethi said in a TV appearance on Wednesday.

With Washington pursuing policies against China, Russia and Iran, it would support India’s case “to sabotage, to undermine Pakistan”, he said.

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Afghan nationals gather in front of the German embassy in Tehran trying to obtain refugee visas. Photo: Reuters

SCO summit

These divergent interests will converge next week in Dushanbe for the annual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement (SCO), a regional security operation led by China and Russia which includes Pakistan and India as well as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Tajikistan is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation and hosts Russia’s largest overseas military base. Since 2004, Tajikistan has also hosted India’s first overseas air force base.

It is also beholden to China, which holds about 80 per cent of its foreign debt.

Like Iran and India, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon is unhappy with the overthrow of Afghanistan’s elected government, which included powerful ethnic Tajiks like former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.

Rahmon’s call for a government of national reconciliation and the protection of minorities received no support from Afghanistan’s other Central Asian neighbours.

Instead, rival Uzbekistan was the first to “welcome” the Taliban’s caretaker cabinet, while Turkmenistan maintained a stoic silence.

However, Rahmon may find an ally in Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, who is prioritising relations with neighbours over rapprochement with the US.

Iran is set to join the SCO and Raisi will reportedly use the summit to make a strong statement on Afghanistan.