Source: AFP

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery 

Since the momentous events of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, ties between Iran and the U.S. have followed a predictable pattern, typified by acrimony and recrimination. More menacingly, both countries have made no efforts to improve the trajectory of their decades-long rivalry. An even-otherwise volatile Middle East region continues to be marred by U.S.-Iran tensions. Citing Iran’s subversive role in the Middle East, the U.S. withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a deal that had effectively debarred Iran from going nuclear. This amplifies that, for the U.S., Iran challenging it and its allies in the Middle East, is a far bigger concern. The killing of Iran’s proxy-warfare Czar, Major General Qasem Soleimani, and the events that followed are instructive in assessing as to what could ensue. The web of proxies in the Middle East is an important dimension of the U.S.-Iran conflict. For the U.S., the proxy web is the biggest threat to its interests in the Middle East. While for the Islamic Republic, it is one of the centers of gravity. Washington’s moves to disrupt and obliterate proxies will only be matched by Iran’s defiance to keep them going. The stakes will go up precipitously once proxies are targeted. While January’s showdown ended without further escalation, any provocations in the future will not only result in increased violence in the already-active war zones but also open up new theatres. Afghanistan could be the next battlefield for a U.S.-Iran confrontation. There are a number of reasons why U.S.- Iran conflict is bad news for Afghanistan.

One, the presence of some 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan provides Iran with a risky option to hurt the U.S. In case the U.S. attacks Iranian installations or targets its proxies, Iran could mull over directly targeting U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Risks of further escalation notwithstanding, the optics of Iran engaging U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be domestically rewarding for the regime. The target may appear to be more lucrative for Tehran. It must be stressed that the regime has vowed to respond punitively to all acts of aggression by the U.S. at a place and time of its own choosing. That said, choosing Afghanistan as a place to respond to the U.S. would be very costly for Iran. Targeting U.S. forces in a brazen and direct manner would be a recipe for disaster. An attack directed against U.S. forces from Iranian territory would give the U.S. all the impetus to retaliate in kind and take the battle right into mainland Iran. Engaging U.S. forces directly would be the quickest and surest way of starting the much-dreaded U.S.-Iran war. Iran will also draw opprobrium from the Afghan government and the international community. It will also give traction to voices that are pushing the Trump administration to significantly up the ante against Iran. Afghanistan will be in the crossfire once again.

Two, the dynamics of Tehran’s ties with U.S.’ principal foe, Taliban, have changed. No longer are Iran and Taliban at loggerheads. Not only has Tehran hosted the Taliban to ‘review and assess the peace process’, it has been accused of arming and funding the Taliban. Recently, U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said Iran is earnestly trying to sabotage the peace process while asserting that the Taliban are becoming a party to Iran’s dirty work. Many believe that Tehran has a robust tactical understanding with the Taliban. Accusations aside, both have shunned enmity in favour of cooperation. Tehran could think about expanding the scope of this relationship in a bid to beef up the Taliban viz the US. The Taliban could be persuaded to talk tough with the U.S. or even scuttle the peace process. After carrying-out a strike on a U.S. base in Iraq in response to Soleimani’s killing, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei said that the process of retaliation will end  the day U.S. forces are sent packing from the region. This aim is similar to what the Taliban want. A strong Tehran-Taliban collaboration to achieve this goal cannot be ruled-out. That said, if the Taliban are seen as yet another plank of Iran’s anti-U.S. campaign, the on-going Afghan peace process would practically grind to a halt. If anything, the U.S. would then be compelled to revert back to its military-heavy approach towards the Taliban. This would be disastrous for Afghan peace as the country would descend into further chaos and instability. Regional players like Pakistan and China who are on the forefront in the peace process, will also be affected. It will also dent Pakistan’s efforts aimed at setting up the dialogue process between the Taliban and the U.S. Pressure on Pakistan to ‘do-more’ will increase. However, Islamabad’s capacity to deliver what the U.S. wants will reduce if another power like Iran increases its leverage with the Taliban. For Afghanistan, it will be a lose-lose situation.

Three, Iran could do in Afghanistan what it continues to do in the entire Middle East: activate proxies. Iran has lent its support to Shia factions inside Afghanistan. In its campaign to bolster the Assad regime in Syria, Iran recruited Shia Afghans to fight as part of the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria. With the war in Syria coming to an end, the battle hardened Shia fighters could prove valuable proxies for Iran against U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Iran may use these foot soldiers to turn a nascent proxy architecture into a potent one that could challenge U.S. interests in Afghanistan. Iran may be tempted to
espouse proxies to counter the growing presence of the Khorasan wing of the Islamic State. Regardless of the pretext, the proxy element in the Afghan theatre will pose a formidable challenge to the U.S., especially when its future in Afghanistan hangs in the balance. Again, this option is full of risks and disadvantages. The U.S. may then be forced to increase its military footprint in Afghanistan rather than engage in peace dialogues. Seeing various groups as Iranian proxies, the U.S. could again lump them together. This could change the conflict dynamics in Afghanistan. The country could then witness events similar to those that were witnessed elsewhere in the Middle East. Afghanistan would be further shackled in war and conflict. Peace processes will become more difficult to start.

These dangers are not likely to wither away even if the highly-touted peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban is signed. As the U.S. and the Taliban brace themselves for a 7-day ‘reduction in violence’ period, speculations abound of what kind of an agreement have interlocutors from both sides reached. According to an insightful article by veteran U.S. journalist, Kimberly Dozier, the parleys in Doha have convinced the Taliban to allow a U.S. counterterrorism force to remain deployed in Afghanistan. If this turns out to be true then the troubles highlighted above may come to the fore, should temperatures rise between Tehran and Washington. Perhaps, the U.S. inducted this clause as a possible preemptive or coercive tool against Iran in Afghanistan and the region.

In sum, one could argue that simmering U.S.-Iran tensions could grievously impact Afghanistan. A U.S.-Iran confrontation in or through Afghanistan will spell trouble for the war-torn country. Opening-up the Afghan theatre, while providing Iran with options to pull the plug on the U.S., will escalate the conflict very rapidly and put Iran in a very difficult situation vis-à-vis the U.S.

Syed Ali Zia Jaffery is Associate Editor, Pakistan Politico.