The emerging struggle for primacy between the Taliban and the notorious Middle East-based Islamic State is causing significant changes in the dynamics of Afghanistan. The war can no longer be simply described as one between NATO forces led by the United States and the Taliban. It has become a multi-sided affair that also includes Iran and China.
That ISIS is about in the country can’t be ignored. There have been two attacks since last September that were clearly carried out by the murderous fundamentalist organization, which has grown from its base in Syria and Iraq into what is becoming a real state, its plans to establish a “caliphate” across the Middle East starting to become a reality. One of those attacks included 15 trademark beheadings.
The very emergence of ISIS in the Afghan countryside, or the threat of its emergence, has already started to pave the way for new alliances. For instance what seemed like an unfathomable scenario just a few years ago – Shia Iran’s support for the hardline Sunni Taliban – has become a reality due to the changing circumstances of the war, where western forces have been tied down by a stubborn fundamentalist insurgency since the original NATO invasion following the destruction by Osama bin Laden of the World Trade Center in 2001. At least 25,000 civilians, 15,000 to 25,000 opposition forces, 7,000 NATO troops have died in a long and sour morass.
Shia Iran Aligns with Sunni Taliban
Though it may be hard to believe, such an alliance is now a critical element of the situation on the ground.
But its significance is far larger than a mere shift of balance of power within the country. In a way, this struggle for dominance, which is still embryonic, has a lot to do with the struggle going on between Iran and China on the one hand, and the US and its allies on the other.
The oft-repeated argument advanced by some western media that the ISIS emergence is due to the failure of secular governments to deliver, as well as the Taliban’s intransigence in resolving the 14-year-old conflict, appears to be linked with a larger propaganda campaign going on to present the Islamic State as an organization working “independently” of any western or eastern influence.
Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former president, said the ISIS could not possibly have expanded into Afghanistan “without a foreign hand, without foreign backing.”
The narrative of Afghanistan, however, to the extent that it’s discussed at all, continues to be about terrorism and stability, nation-building and “support.” If the changing contours of the war are not so apparent, that is only because the western media have failed to present the conflict in its true context. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the current war, and the actual agenda driving it.
The actual agenda is not something new. It is the same old strategic objective the US wanted to achieve when it first attacked Afghanistan in 2001 – establishing Afghanistan as a US stronghold in the region, allowing it land access to the western Asia on the one hand, and to Central and Southern Asia on the other.
China, Fearing Uyghurs, Thwarting US, Joins In
A covert alliance between Iran, China and the Taliban is, as such, a counter-alliance against the US’s new war strategy. Though Tehran has officially denied providing weapons or financial support to the Taliban, sources in the region have confirmed that indeed such support is being given, and has certainly increased during the past few months or so. A senior Afghan government official, speaking to the Wall Street Journal explained succinctly that, “At the beginning Iran was supporting [the] Taliban financially. But now they are training and equipping them, too.”
Although some scepticism should prevail while reading US or Afghan intelligence officials’ claims about Iran’s ‘deep’ involvement in Afghanistan as the Taliban’s ally, circumstantial evidence points to the same direction. As it stands, Iran has been supporting Syria in the latter’s fight against ISIS, and now ISIS’s presence inside Afghanistan directly threatens Iran itself, sharing as it does a 921-km border with Afghanistan. It therefore looks a strategically viable choice for Iran to court the Taliban into an alliance to try to neutralize a mutual enemy.
That ISIS is an anti-Shia organization is quite apparent from the atrocities it has committed in Iraq and Syria. Iran understands this position and, from Tehran’s perspective, an alliance with the Taliban in their war against the ISIS in Afghanistan is essentially a new theater in the larger war.
As far as China’s role in this counter-alliance is concerned, China sees in Afghanistan one of the main keys to its entire regional, and indeed global, strategy, from the New Silk Roads to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Sitting in the middle of the strategically critical Central Asian region, Afghanistan represents for China both a bridge to its partner, Pakistan, and the key to the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia.
Threat to China’s interests
As such, any further destabilization in Afghanistan by the ISIS, acting as a Western proxy, is sure to have a negative impact on China’s politico-economic interests. An additional factor, pushing China further into this alliance, is China’s own continuingg struggle against Islamic extremism in Xinjiang. The spread of Islamic militancy by the ISIS in Afghanistan could seriously jeopardize the security situation in Xinjiang, which can further deteriorate China’s ‘great’ economic plans---hence, an alliance with the Taliban and Iran in countering this newly opened front in Afghanistan.
Even after 14 years of war, Afghanistan continues to be a mess of conflicting interests. The struggle for politico-military dominance that began in 2001 is nowhere near its end; rather, it is becoming even more intense as more regional and extra-regional actors get involved.
For China and Iran, an ISIS-free, and by default a US-free Afghanistan is essential for materializing its political and economic gains.
On the contrary, for the US, nothing could serve its strategic ambitions more effectively than an extremely unstable Afghanistan. It is only by creating such a situation that the US, using the umbrella provided by the Bilateral Security Agreement that governs its relations with Kabul, can prolong its stay, increase military presence and, as such, counterbalance China’s penetration.