Asif Haroon Raja
It is a well-known fact that Iran and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon have been extensively involved in the Syrian civil war in order to save the regime of Bashar al-Assad from the clenching claws of USA and its allies. Reportedly, Iranian security forces had trained Afghan Shia fighters and Pakistani Shias from Hangu and Kurram Agency and used them extensively to reinforce Iranian militias and Hezbollah in the Syrian civil war. But for Iran’s support bolstered by Russian air force in Sept 2015, the ruling regime in Syria would have been history long time ago. Assad’s survival has caused a big setback to the already bruised prestige of USA.
Now that Afghanistan is apparently moving towards peace, it has come to light that the fighters sent to Syria are being inducted into Afghanistan. According to Afghan Mujahideen leader Gulbadin Hikmatyar, who heads Hizb-e-Islami and has patched up with the Afghan unity government, those fighters have been withdrawn from Syria and Iran is now planning to induct a well-trained combat force of 30,000 warriors into Afghanistan to keep the country turbulent.
In his interview to the Arab News, he stated that from among all the neighbors of Afghanistan, Iran is the lone neighbor which in pursuit of its economic and ideological interests has been constantly pouring funds and is fueling bloodshed for the last 30 years to keep Afghanistan in a state of war. He said that the ongoing civil war in Afghanistan has helped Iran in increasing its influence in Afghanistan and reaching Afghan markets. Presently Iranian exports to Afghanistan have touched $ 5 billion, out of which about $ 3 billion is earned through smuggling.
Hikmatyar said that though Iran is geographically situated west of Afghanistan, it can be seen that eastern provinces of Khost and Nangarhar are flooded with Iranian goods. Irani dates are sold in Laghman and Nangarhar bordering Pakistan. He added that shipping out gas and oil from Central Asian Republics (CARs) via Afghanistan and Pakistan can open wide vistas for trade for the landlocked states with the rest of the world. But Iran want to fail Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project and instead revive Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project. Another objective that Iran intend to achieve by keeping Afghanistan destabilized is to compel CARs to divert to Chahbahar route for trade. Yet another motive to destabilize Afghanistan is to scuttle CPEC and divert Central Asia’s economic trade towards Chahbahar via Afghanistan.
In his view, Iran not only wants to capture the entire market of CARs but also want to deprive Pakistan and Afghanistan from reaping any economic benefits from CARs so that the two remain dependent upon Iran for trade.
What one can make out of the revelations made by Hekmatyar is that Iran has also joined the bandwagon of spoilers (India and USA) who are anti-peace. They want to keep the pot of insurgency in Afghanistan on the boil, and by implication keeping Pakistan destabilized since the destinies of the two neighbors are intertwined.
USA, India, Afghanistan, Iran and Israel are on one page to derail CPEC and have been making frenetic efforts to fail the project.
Iran has allowed India to develop and upgrade Chahbahar into a big commercial port rivalling Gwadar and the work is likely to be completed toward the end of this year. Work has not ceased in spite of the US sanctions imposed on Iran. An economic agreement related to Chahbahar was signed between Iran-India-Afghanistan in 2016, which was Gwadar specific.
India is also feverishly extending Zaranj-Delaram Highway and rail network in Afghanistan to connect it with Chahbahar Port. North-South trade route linking Mumbai with seaport Bandar Abbas in Iran is also underway.
It is now a well-established fact that the US governed by its global ambitions had occupied Afghanistan in late 2001. Among several objectives in the region, Pakistan was also on the hit list which was to be weakened from within through clandestine operations and then denuclearized. For this purpose, the US made NATO, Israel, India and puppet regime in Kabul as strategic partners and Afghanistan as the base of operation with RAW spearheading the covert war. Several proxies were hired in FATA, Baluchistan and Karachi and were heavily funded and equipped to undertake the game of bloodshed.
To their huge disappointment, all the proxies failed to deliver in spite of spending millions of dollars and none of the objectives laid out for Pakistan could be achieved. While TTP in FATA has been flushed out and pushed into Afghanistan, all the Baloch rebel groups in Baluchistan are in disarray, particularly after the arrest of Kalbushan Yadav in March 2016 who was supervising terrorism in Baluchistan and Karachi from his base at Chahbahar. The MQM funded by India tasked to destabilize and loot the port city has also been fractured and reined in.
Countrywide Operation Raddul Fasad is busy cleansing the sleeping cells and nabbing the handlers, facilitators and financiers of terrorists coming from Afghanistan. TTP has got split into factions while its top leader Fazlullah has been killed by a US drone since he had become a liability for his patrons. Fencing of western border and intended return of Afghan refugees by Pakistan has added to the woes of masterminds playing the bloody game through proxies and a segment of Afghan refugees.
To make up the loss and to keep the game going, on one hand the unity government in Kabul and the US is preaching peace and urging Pakistan to help in restoring peace in Afghanistan, and on the other hand the US is quietly consolidating ISIS (Daesh) in Afghanistan. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had emphatically stated that the US was secretly bringing ISIS fighters from Iraq in helicopters to Tora Bora, contiguous to Kurram Agency.
Defections of TTP leaders started soon after the death of Mullah Omar was announced in late July 2014. In August 2014, some ISIS leaders met TTP leaders desirous of joining ISIS in Aurakzai Agency. Next month, a return call to Fallujah was made by Abdul Rauf Khadim. Same month, six TTP leaders defected and pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Baghdadi.
In January 2015, Hafiz Saeed was nominated as commander of Islamic State – Khurasan Province, (IS-K) and it was declared that ancient Khurasan was part of the caliphate. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval had played a key role in arranging the meetings. He had got closer to ISIS in 2014 after he arranged supply of explosives and arms to them in Syria. He also extended help in shifting some ISIS members to Nangarhar to form a nucleus of IS-K.
IS-K’s effort to capture Nangarhar province rich in minerals (talc, chromite, marble), where Khalid Khurasani heading breakaway faction of TTP, Jamaatul Ahrar was based, was fiercely resisted by Afghan Taliban, but the former managed to capture few districts and got firmly entrenched by June 2015. The nucleus of ISIS was beefed up with majority of members from TTP and a small part from disgruntled group of Afghan Taliban under Mullah Yaqub that had rebelled against Mullah Mansour after he took over as Amir of TTP.
In August 2015, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) that had been shunted out from North Waziristan joined hands with IS-K, but it was pushed out of Nangarhar by the Taliban. IS-K expanded its influence in Helmand and Farah provinces as well and is mining 500,000 talc and exporting it to Europe and USA. This couldn’t be possible without the connivance of Afghan government and the US led Resolute Support Group (RSG). Unlike in Afghanistan, IS-K has not been able to establish itself in Pakistan.
Afghan Peace process was given a fatal blow by the US by droning Mullah Mansour near Turbat in May 2016, who was a frequent visitor to Iran. It was a clear indication that Iran was one of his sources of arms procurement. But his death didn’t curtail the offensive drive of the Taliban and they have kept up the momentum under the new leader Akhundzada Haibatullah and today almost 50% of Afghan territory is under their control. Afghan Army and 15,600 RSG can do little to contain the ongoing spring offensive of Taliban.
While Iran is shifting his fighters from Syria to Afghanistan, the US is shifting ISIS fighters from Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan. There are reports that Baghdadi has moved from Raqqa to Nangarhar which implies that the focus of ISIS fighting has now shifted to Af-Pak region. Their induction and settlement was not possible without the willing cooperation and support of the incumbent government in Kabul including Afghan Army and NDS.
IS-K in concert with factionalized TTP are being used against Pakistan while the IS-K is also being used against Afghan Taliban. If that be so, song of peace sung by Ashraf Ghani and the US, and urging Pakistan to help in restoring peace is a deception and a hoax.
One possible reason of Iran’s intervention in Afghanistan other than religious, political and economic interests is the emerging threat of IS-K in its immediate neighborhood which has traditionally been anti-Iran and anti-Shia and has been targeting Shia targets in Afghanistan. Provision of arms to Taliban is also meant to enable them to confront IS-K.
Gen Nicholson and other US officials have been accusing Russia of providing arms to the Taliban. Former alleged that Russian weapons were being smuggled across the Tajik border to the Taliban. Russia, Tajikistan and Taliban have denied the allegation. Moscow denies the material support but admits ‘contacts’.
Russia’s links with Taliban are aimed at deflating USA and NATO. Russia countered America’s allegation by alleging that the US and NATO support the IS-K
Ties between Russia and Taliban improved significantly soon after the establishment of IS-K in January 2015. Possibility of covert supply of night vision goggles, light and heavy machine guns and small arms to Taliban cannot be ruled out. However, the Taliban can easily manage to meet their small arms needs by purchasing them from international black market, or from ANSF, or snatching them in the battlefield. What they direly need from Russia is the sophisticated weapons such as anti-aircraft guns and stinger type missile to be able to confront the US air supremacy.
The Taliban are also seeking political and diplomatic support of Pakistan, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states to improve its bargaining power and to legitimize their freedom struggle.
Russia is desirous of restoring its lost influence in Afghanistan and must be looking forward to Afghanistan becoming a graveyard for the US occupying forces to avenge its humiliation in 1989. However, time is so far not ripe for Moscow to take the extreme step of providing Sam missiles to Taliban. Probably it will let the RSG sink more deeply in the quagmire, or wait for the internal political situation in USA under Trump to further worsen before it takes the plunge.
However, if the threat of IS-K becomes menacing and spills over to CARs threatening its backyard, it will impel Moscow to fulfil the defence needs of Taliban, or it may even compel Moscow to intervene in Afghanistan the way it had in Syria.
Growing rift between the US and Pakistan as a result of the US hardline approach has created space for Pakistan and Russia to mend fences and build diplomatic, economic and military relations. Pakistan has offered multidimensional strategic partnership and their relations have touched historic new heights.
Other than Pakistan, China and CARs, none is interested in peace in Afghanistan because of their unfulfilled geo-strategic and geo-economic objectives.
Afghanistan helps India in reaching Central Asian markets and in posing a twin threat to its arch rival Pakistan.
Unstable Afghanistan keeps Pakistan pinned down toward its western border, thereby giving a freehand to Iran to undermine CPEC by operationalizing Chahbahar.
Unstable Afghanistan affects Pakistan the most since both share 2600 km long border. 60% of Afghan territory (eastern and southern Afghanistan) is contiguous to FATA and Pashtun belt of Baluchistan in Pakistan. It is suffering the fallout effects of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan followed by civil war, Taliban rule and the current 17 years old war with no end in sight. Its economy is bleeding and its security threatened by the dangerously poised Indo-US-Afghan nexus.
China promotes peace in war torn Afghanistan in order to make its CPEC functional.
Landlocked CARs want to draw economic benefits from CPEC and so does Russia.
That way, CPEC has posed a big threat to the imperialist interests of USA, Israel and India since the multibillion project has full potential to sever the strategic encirclement of Pakistan and China, make Pakistan economically self-reliant, and make China the leading economic power.
Additionally, it may isolate India and USA once the markets of Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Africa and Europe get swayed toward CPEC connected with largest seaport of Gwadar. It will shatter the dream of India to become the policeman of Asia-Pacific and a world power.
Unlike USA, Pakistan, China and Russia want a negotiated settlement of lingering conflict in Afghanistan.
Too many powers have got involved in war weary Afghanistan. With new players Russia, China and Iran seeking a role in Afghan affairs and USA and India wanting to keep them out has made the situation complex and has created conditions for another ‘Great Game’, the effects of which will have grave consequences for the whole region.
The writer is a retired Brig Gen, war veteran, defence analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre.