US, Iran wishful thinking over the Taliban

Kabul appears to be the biggest loser in the Taliban’s shrewd manoeuvrings between Tehran and Washington.
Sunday 09/06/2019
Qatari officials (C) take part in a meeting between the US (L) and Taliban (R) delegations in Doha, February 26. (AFP)
Big divide. Qatari officials (C) take part in a meeting between the US (L) and Taliban (R) delegations in Doha, February 26. (AFP)

Not even the joyous month of Ramadan brought peace and quiet to Afghanistan, which experienced a spike in violence as the Taliban claimed responsibility for multiple attacks. Yet Washington and Tehran, which do not appear to agree on much these days, both reach out to the Taliban as a stabilising force, perhaps in an apparent belief in the ancient proverb: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

While US President Donald Trump considers transition of power in Afghanistan to the historically anti-Iranian Taliban as a viable exit strategy for the United States from that country, Iran has used the past few years to mend relations with the Taliban to increase pressure on the US military.

In the end, however, both Washington and Tehran may find themselves outmanoeuvred by the Taliban.

On June 1, the US State Department said Zalmay Khalilzad, US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, would have new talks in June with the Taliban in Doha. On April 28, in an interview with Tolo TV station, Khalilzad emphasised the United States would not withdraw the NATO-led, 14,000-troop mission from Afghanistan “if we don’t see see a permanent ceasefire and a commitment to end the war.”

For months, Khalilzad and Taliban representatives have met in Doha to discuss how foreign troops could be withdrawn from Afghanistan and how to guarantee the country will not be used by outside forces to attack other countries.

For a time, the talks proceeded so well, that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, addressing a farmers’ gathering in Iowa in March, declared his readiness to personally take part in negotiations with the Taliban. The talks ceased for about a month and Pompeo has since condemned the Taliban’s recent attacks but the State Department is willing to resume “to move the peace process forward,” as it said in a statement June 1.

The State Department optimistically insisting on the path of negotiations with the Taliban should hardly surprise. They are under pressure from US President Donald Trump, who has on numerous occasions criticised America’s longest war, costing more than $900 billion and taking the lives of more than 2,300 US soldiers since 2001.

In his State of the Union address, Trump declared his interest in reaching a “political settlement in Afghanistan,” reducing the presence of US troops and focusing “on counterterrorism.”

The State Department, however, has no monopoly on optimism when it comes to the Taliban. In mid-February, two weeks before the Doha negotiations, Saad-Allah Zarei, a political analyst close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), just as optimistically elaborated on alleged shared interest of Tehran and the Taliban in expelling foreign, in particular, American, military forces from Afghanistan.

Zarei, participating in a Mashregh News panel, tried hard to tone down the anti-Shia proclivity among the Taliban and instead emphasised the anti-Americanism of the group. “The government of Afghanistan is both Pashtun and Sunni, yet the Taliban says it must be toppled because it is an American puppet,” Zarei said. “Therefore… the United States is their primary enemy and not the Shias.”

Ignoring systematic Taliban bombings of Shia mosques in Afghanistan, Zarei claimed: “Fundamentally, the concept of war against the Shias does not exist in the intellectual framework of the Taliban.” Zarei went as far as declaring Iran’s support for the Taliban: “To the extent the Taliban moves in the direction of stability and co-existence of ethnicities, it is supported by us,” he said.

Tasnim News Agency, close to the IRGC, just as optimistically releases news story after news story about the Taliban as an effective force capable of eradicating the Islamic State from Afghanistan.

Such statements illustrate the degree of wishful thinking in Washington and Tehran, both of which want to believe the Taliban’s promises. Washington needs a diplomatic cover for its ignominious military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Tehran creates the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic as an excuse to ignore the very real anti-Shia trend among the Taliban and recalibrate its policy towards the Taliban.

The rivalry between the United States and Iran adds another strange dimension to Tehran’s and Washington’s optimism concerning the Taliban and future of Afghanistan: Pompeo and Khalilzad pursue an expressed policy of rolling back Iranian influence in the Middle East and Central Asia; Zarei and the IRGC are the very agents of Iran’s regional influence.

Can they both count on the Taliban to secure their interests or will the Taliban continue to play Washington and Tehran against each other in order to extract concessions from both?

At any rate, Kabul appears to be the biggest loser in the Taliban’s shrewd manoeuvrings between Tehran and Washington. It is highly doubtful that the Taliban and Kabul would agree to a power-sharing arrangement, given that the Taliban refuse to engage in negotiations with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government.