The Saudi-Iran feud risks spilling over into Afghanistan as both countries push for greater influence with competing groups in the war-torn country.
Afghans went to the polls last month to elect a new president at a time of great uncertainty for their country. Violence is escalating, President Trump cancelled peace talks with the Taliban, and a post-election dispute could plunge Afghanistan deeper into crisis.
There are concerns that, if the US does not secure an adequate peace settlement with the Taliban and withdraws without a deal, the country could revert to the chaotic civil war of the 1990s.
A recent study by RAND warned of a “wider civil war” following an American pullout, while a letter from nine former US ambassadors raised the prospect of “a return to the total civil war that consumed Afghanistan as badly as the war with the Russians.”
Make no mistake: the disintegration of the country is a real possibility. And foreign powers may once again back different sides in a civil war, as they did in the 1990s. But the constellation of forces this time would look very different.
In the 1990s, the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, was pitted against the Northern Alliance, a coalition of mostly non-Pashtun groups supported by Iran, India, Russia, and the US.
Fast forward to 2019, and things have changed dramatically. Iran now supports the Taliban, although it also maintains a relationship with its opponents in the Afghan government. Russia reportedly arms and funds the insurgents, too, and at least has firm diplomatic ties.
But Moscow, like Tehran, plays both sides of the conflict, providing support to Afghanistan’s government. The same can be said of China, which has cultivated closer diplomatic links with the Taliban in recent years while also engaging with Kabul.
Uzbekistan, which once hosted the CIA-backed Northern Alliance activities to combat the Taliban—and facilitated NATO supply routes when Pakistan denied access several years ago—now has a deepening relationship with the movement, even hosting a Taliban office.
India remains hostile to the group, which it associates with Pakistan. But there are calls for Delhi to adopt a more pragmatic approach and embrace peace talks with the group, given its growing power. India’s intelligence agency, RAW, has reportedly opened a backchannel.
A clear picture is emerging: states which once opposed the Taliban now support it (or at least have closer diplomatic ties). And, vice versa, countries which backed the group in the 1990s, now oppose it.
A new theatre
Saudi Arabia and the UAE were two of only three governments to recognise the Taliban regime after it took power in 1996. But both countries cut ties after 9/11 and threw their weight behind America’s war on terror, with the UAE contributing troops to the Afghan war.
Riyadh reportedly allowed private donations to continue to flow to the Taliban and may have provided some state-level funding, too, as reported in the book Pan-Islamic Connections.
But it has also tried to discredit the Taliban, organising a conference of ulema in 2018 to pronounce against the group and delegitimise its 'jihad'. Saudi has also formed closer links with Ashraf Ghani’s government in Kabul.
Saudi Arabia was already turning against the Taliban before 9/11 due to its refusal to surrender Osama Bin Laden. But its antipathy has only grown since then, largely due to the group’s closer relations with Iran and Qatar, Riyadh’s principal adversaries.
Not only has Iran grown closer to the Taliban, allegedly hosting training camps and arming fighters, it has also funded educational and religious projects in Afghanistan while emerging as its main trading partner.
Riyadh has tried to counter Iranian influence with development projects of its own, while reportedly considering support for the Hezb e Islami party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. It has also attempted to split the Taliban to lure away factions hostile to Iran.
Saudi is also keen to push back against Qatari influence in Afghanistan, which has increased thanks to the presence of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, where most of the group’s negotiations with the US have taken place.
When the Taliban set out to open its office several years ago, the Gulf states competed to host it. But Saudi Arabia and the UAE both demanded that the Taliban renounce al-Qaeda first. Qatar made no such demands, and the office opened in Doha.
Since then both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have urged President Trump to close down the Taliban office and cited its presence in Doha as one of the reasons for their blockade of Qatar in 2017. They have also tried to host peace talks without much success.
It appears, then, that Saudi Arabia is losing the battle for Afghanistan. But the country is not a strategic priority for the kingdom, which is far more concerned with developments in its immediate neighbourhood, in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
Iran, by contrast, cares deeply about Afghanistan. The two countries are neighbours and share an extensive land border, enabling large-scale drug-trafficking which has fuelled an appalling domestic heroin epidemic. There are also millions of Afghan refugees in Iran.
Added to that, the Islamic State (Daesh) has a branch in Afghanistan. Although its base is nowhere near the Iranian border, Tehran has long been concerned that rising instability might allow the group to expand and threaten its interests.
As has been written, Afghanistan holds the same significance for Iran as Yemen does for Saudi Arabia. And, just as Iran managed to bleed Riyadh in Yemen using minimal resources, Saudi could try to do the same to Iran, through Afghanistan.
But challenging the Taliban is no easy task. The group is more sophisticated than it was in the 1990s when it won the civil war. It also has far more foreign support. Moreover, the anti-Taliban opposition remains divided.
And the US, which has hitherto provided the bulk of the funding and weaponry to fight the insurgency, is eager to disengage from Afghanistan. It is hard to imagine Washington getting involved in a proxy war.
Rather than embarking on a campaign to dent the power of a group which has prevailed in a gruelling 20-year conflict against the most powerful country in the world, Saudi Arabia may cut its losses and try to work pragmatically with the Taliban.
Given the kingdom’s religious clout in the Muslim world and partnership with Pakistan, the Taliban’s long-time patron, it does retain some influence with the movement. Riyadh likely has more to gain from working with the Taliban than against them.
But the regional rivalry is reaching fever pitch, with Iran blamed for a recent attack on Saudi oil facilities, and rational decision-making may fall by the wayside fuelling a future proxy war in a country that doesn't need any more fighting.
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