Taliban fighters stand guard at a Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Torkham, Khyber district, Pakistan on August 21, 2021.
Credit: AP Photo / Muhammad Sajjad
Afghanistan is undergoing an important and fundamental strategic change following the takeover of the country by the Taliban.
In recent weeks, Iran and Pakistan have had a flurry of meetings to discuss the future of Afghanistan amid the emerging situation. It can be argued that the roles of Pakistan and Iran in Afghanistan have become essential to prevent another civil war between different ethnic and ideological factions.
In the past, Iran and Pakistan have supported different factions in Afghanistan in an effort to preserve their influence and interests. During the 1990s, Iran supported and armed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. In 1998, the Taliban killed at least eight Iranian diplomats and correspondents in Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan in retaliation for Tehran’s support for its enemies.
Pakistan, on the other hand, has actively supported the Taliban for decades. Pakistan was one of three countries that recognized the group’s previous regime. This time, too, Islamabad is actively pushing the international community to work with the current Taliban regime.
To date, tensions exist between Iranian and Pakistani views in Afghanistan. For example, Iran was unhappy with Pakistan’s alleged military support for the Panjshir Valley Taliban against the Northern Alliance resistance front led by the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud.
“Last night’s attacks are condemned in the strongest terms … and the foreign interference you referred to must be investigated,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman. Said Khatibzadeh told reporters in an apparent reference to Pakistan’s alleged role.
Although there are differences in the Afghan policies of Pakistan and Iran, the emerging geopolitical realities in the region seem to force the two countries to work together in Afghanistan.
In recent years, Iran has realized that working with the Taliban is better suited to its interests than promoting anti-Taliban fronts in an attempt to isolate the group. To a certain extent, this view on Tehran’s side essentially ties it to Afghan pro-Taliban policies in Islamabad.
Iran has cautiously greeted the new Taliban regime, stressing that the country’s cooperation will depend on the behavior of the new Afghan leadership. What is crucial for Iran is how the Taliban regime will treat its ethnic minorities, especially the Shiites, and whether it will include them in the new configuration. During a speech on August 28Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said: “The nature of our relationship with governments depends on the nature of their relationship with us.
The political and military leaders of Iran and Pakistan participated in several meetings which called on the Taliban to honor their commitments.
Pakistan also said the international community should hold the new Afghan leaders accountable for their promises to form an inclusive government and to ban militant groups from using Afghan soil against neighboring countries. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Imran Khan noted, “After meetings in Dushanbe with the leaders of Afghanistan’s neighbors… I started a dialogue with the Taliban for an inclusive Afghan government including the Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.
Pakistan and Iran’s emphasis on forming an inclusive government shows that there remains an understanding between the two countries to push for a regime that can bring stability to Afghanistan.
In addition, both countries fear the possibility of a new refugee crisis at their borders. Iran and Pakistan are home to the largest Afghan refugee populations in the world. If another civil war breaks out in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are expected to host thousands of Afghan refugees, which could potentially impact the country’s security and economy. Thus, it remains in the interests of Pakistan and Iran to engage with the Taliban to prevent a civil war and a consequent refugee crisis.
Another motivation that could bring Iran and Pakistan closer together in Afghanistan is the Taliban’s ability to contain the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) in the country. Instability and conflict between different ethnic factions in Afghanistan could allow the ISK to thrive. If that happens, the group could become a major threat to Iran and Pakistan in the weeks and months to come. ISK has shown its willingness to attack the interests of both countries in the region. It makes sense for Tehran and Islamabad to join forces and work with the Taliban to combat the ISK threat from Afghanistan.
Pakistan and Iran have a rare opportunity to work together in Afghanistan, not only to protect their mutual interests, but also to ensure that the region does not once again become a hotbed of terrorism and violence.