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Iran and the Taliban: A tactical alliance?

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Iran and the Taliban A tactical alliance

However, the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the fear of a resurgent ISIS in Afghanistan, and water issues have prompted Tehran to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. This tactical alliance will enable Iran to further expand its influence in Afghanistan.

Iran and the Taliban have long had their ups and downs. In 1998, the two sides nearly came to a direct clash when Taliban forces killed Iranian diplomats, though the incident ended without a major conflict. However, the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the fear of a resurgent ISIS in Afghanistan, and water issues have prompted Tehran to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. This tactical alliance will enable Iran to further expand its influence in Afghanistan.

Iran has had covert contacts with the Taliban, the most dangerous terror group in Afghanistan, for many years. But recently, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), went public with the relationship, claiming that contacts had been made with the aim of “curbing the security problems in Afghanistan.”

The announcement came as a surprise not because the public was unaware of Iran’s secret relations with the Taliban, but because Tehran has always tried to keep its ties to terror groups an “open secret” in an attempt to maintain plausible deniability. Why did Tehran decide to go public about the Taliban connection now?

A review of the relationship’s history may help to explain the mullahs’ thinking. Relations between Iran and the Taliban have long had their ups and downs. During the period of Taliban rule, Iran saw the group as a threat to its interests. The two sides almost came to a direct clash in September 1998, when Taliban forces kidnapped and killed nine Iranian diplomats and one journalist in the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) vowed revenge and prepared to launch an all-out attack. But the crisis ended without a major clash, perhaps due to the fear that Islamabad would retaliate in support of the Taliban or that Afghanistan might become a quagmire for Iranian forces similar to that experienced by the Soviet Union in 1979-89.

The 2001 US-led military operation that led to the collapse of Taliban rule prompted the Iranian leadership to reconsider its original calculation and recalibrate its approach. It welcomed high-level Taliban figures who escaped to Iran (e.g., Abdul Qayum Zakir and Mullah Naim Barich) and began extending support to Taliban fighters.

While the two sides are on different ends of the religious spectrum, Tehran views the Taliban as a useful point of leverage against the US. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO force composed of American, British, Canadian, and other troops, was created by the UN in 2002 and tasked with training the fledgling Afghan army and protecting the government of Hamid Karzai and his successor, Ashraf Ghani. The Iranian regime viewed the ISAF with concern, as it feared the US might use Afghanistan as a base from which to launch a kinetic attack on Iran. The Taliban insurgency thus became viewed by Tehran as a tool with which to keep American forces preoccupied.

To assist in the Taliban’s fighting of the ISAF, Iran allowed the Afghan terror group to open an office in Tehran and invited its leaders to attend a two-day International Islamic Unity Conference held by the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought in Tehran.

Iran’s support for the Taliban did not terminate even when President Barack Obama assured the mullahs that the military option was no longer official US policy towards Iran. Intelligence reports indicate that Tehran’s military and financial support for the Taliban has in fact escalated ever since. Afghan military officials have accused the Revolutionary Guards of providing military, financial, and logistical support to the terror group, to the extent that Tehran’s support enabled the Taliban to capture districts in western Afghanistan, including the provinces of Farah and Ghor, and the Taywara district. There are also reports indicating that Quds Force operatives had a “physical presence” in Ghor assisting Taliban fighters in their offensive against the central government.

Fighting ISAF was only one of the goals of the Quds Force in Afghanistan. Drug smuggling from Afghanistan to Iran has been a profitable business for the Quds Force, which is known for its extensive ties to drug cartels in South America. In 2012, the US Department of the Treasury (DOT) designated Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Baghbani, the chief of the Quds Force in the Zahedan office, a narcotics trafficker. The DOT document noted that in return for Iranian business, Afghan traffickers moved weapons to the Taliban.

Financial incentives aside, the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan – especially in provinces that border Iran, such as Herat, Farah, and Nimruz – rattled the Iranian regime, prompting the leadership to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. Unlike al Qaeda and the more malleable Taliban, the radical anti-Shiite ISIS poses a real threat to Iran’s interests in Afghanistan. Providing better training for the Taliban was thus not only a way to undermine the American-led ISAF, but a barrier to a new ISIS caliphate across the Afghan border.

Various reports indicate that the IRGC created a training camp in South Khorasan province (Khorasan Jonobi) to train Taliban fighters, providing them with weapons and explosives. The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (Komite Emdad Imam Khomeini) in the same province is said to be donating untold amounts of capital to the terror group in addition to calling for volunteers to fight alongside Taliban forces.

Some observers have directly linked improvements in the Taliban’s performance, and ISIS’s consequent inability to establish a strong foothold in Afghanistan, to Iranian support. Since mid-2017, Taliban and ISIS forces have regularly clashed in eastern Nangarhar province, with the Taliban easily defeating ISIS thanks to the military support it has received from the Quds Force. As one commentator put it, the “scale, quality, and length of training is unprecedented and marks not only a shift in the proxy war between the United States and Iran in Afghanistan but also a potential change in Iran’s ability and will to affect the outcome of the Afghan war.”

Other commentators have noted that Iran’s backing of the Taliban’s assaults on government forces were linked to water issues. Iran has been attempting to enable the Taliban to derail energy projects that are currently under construction, namely the Poze Lich Hydropower plant in Ghor, and the Bakhshabad and Salma dams in the neighboring province of Farah and Herat, respectively. The construction of these dams, which would massively boost local energy and water supplies, is not acceptable to Iran. On July 5, 2017, President Hassan Rouhani declared that Iran “cannot remain indifferent to the issue [water dams], which will damage our environment.” According to Rouhani, “construction of several dams in Afghanistan would affect Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces,” and Tehran “is not going to stand idly by.”

It is worthy of note that the publicizing by Iran of its ties to the Taliban came days after reports appeared on talks between the US and the Taliban over proposals for a ceasefire in Afghanistan. Iran is sending a message to Washington and Kabul that if its concerns are not addressed, it can sabotage any attempt at a permanent peace in Afghanistan. Certainly, given Iran’s ties to the Taliban and the new regional arrangements (i.e., Trump’s decision to withdraw half of US forces from Afghanistan), Iran will be able to further expand its political, economic, and sectarian influence in that country.

Dr. Farhad Rezaei is a member of the  Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) in Washington, DC and the co-author of Iran, Israel, and the United States: The Politics of Counter-Proliferation Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield, NY). @Farhadrezaeii


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The Israel elections, explained for Americans

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The Israel elections explained for Americans

Many Americans are unfamiliar with how the Israeli elections work and what it takes to “win” them. Today’s election is no exception with many Americans simply waiting for the end results (which technically could be weeks away) or not having a concern about them at all. As noted before, these elections will have as big of an impact on our foreign policy as any foreign elections can have.

So, how do they work? Who won? What happens next? Let’s take a look at some answers…

Israelis vote for parties, not candidates

The first big deviation from America’s system of government is that Members of the Knesset (MKs) are selected by the parties, not the people. The people vote for the parties, and those parties are given seats in the Knesset based on their percentage of the vote. The threshold is currently 3.25% to get some of the 120 Knesset seats. Those below the threshold do not get a seat, which is important for the last election in April and Tuesday’s election. More on that later.

The two major parties – the conservative Likud Party and the center-left Blue and White Party – only make up about one-fourth to one-third of the voting population. The next tier of parties are the centrist Yisrael Beitenu Party and the Israeli-Arab coalition of parties, the United Arab List, which is considered to be generally to the left in policies despite holding conservative Muslim values socially. The other parties fight to get whatever seats are left over.

Party leaders are chosen to fill the MK seats as well as cabinet positions, with the party most likely to form a coalition government chosen by the President.

Forming a coalition government

61 MKs are necessary to support a Prime Minister and form a government. Since no single party has every had more than 50% of the vote, a coalition of like-minded parties join together to recommend one leader as Prime Minister.

In April, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition because Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party refused to stay in the conservative coalition because they wanted to pull protections for orthodox Jews from having to serve in the military. Other members of the coalition wouldn’t budge. Instead of risking the baton being passed to Benny Gantz and the center-left Blue and White Party, Netanyahu called for new elections, which is what happened Tuesday.

Exit polls indicate they’re in the same boat with neither Likud nor Blue and White able to form a government without Yisrael Beitenu, which seems to have expanded their seat count. Netanyahu had hopes the smaller conservative parties could have broken the threshold and given him a few extra votes for a conservative government. Gantz hoped the Blue and White would have a decisive victory and claim more seats than Likud, potentially giving them the floor even if his coalition was smaller. It looks as if neither happened.

Liberman is calling for a centrist unity government, but there are challenges that may prevent this. Likud would have to abandon the members of their conservative Zionist coalition by removing the protections against military service requirements for ultra-orthodox Jews. Blue and White has indicated they would not form a unity government as long as Netanyahu was leading Likud.

Unless things are very different from the exit polls, some very tenacious negotiations are ahead behind the scenes.

One way to avoid stalemate

With Likud and Blue and White both needing Yisrael Beitenu’s seats to form a government, it would seem likely that both sides will be making offers. But there’s another option. If Likud’s coalition is close enough, they can go to individual MKs and seek defections in exchange for positions. This may seem like a hard option for conservatives as it would mean inserting progress-minded people into positions of power, but their coalition is insufficient to form a government otherwise.

It’s inconceivable that a single issue about protections for the ultra-orthodox would make the militant Lieberman essentially crown Gantz as Prime Minister, but that may be the case. This is why it’s important for Netanyahu, if he’s chosen to form the government, to act quickly. There will be pressure on members of his own party to dump him and form a unity government with Gantz and Lieberman, and while they have claimed to be loyal to their leader, the risk of losing power overall may sway them.

It’s time for Netanyahu to take decisive action and pull together 61 MKs before his grasp of his party and his nation slips away. It could be disastrous for Israel with an aggressive Iran, emboldened, Hezbollah, and unruly Gaza if Gantz is put in charge.

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Netanyahu’s last-minute endorsement: Ilhan Omar wants him out as PM

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Netanyahus last-minute endorsement Ilhan Omar wants him out as PM

It will be incumbent on the people of Israel to decide Tuesday who will lead their government. Outsiders are discouraged from trying to influence foreign elections, but there’s nothing wrong with people expressing their preference, especially as it pertains to such as strong ally like Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is against the ropes, but he should get at least a symbolic boost from his latest outspoken detractor: Representative Ilhan Omar. The anti-Semitic Congresswoman has made her perspectives on Israel very clear, siding very heavily with “Palestine” and even declaring in her attempted visit there last month that she was traveling to Palestine, not Israel, in her itinerary.

She has insinuated at times she believes Israel should not exist as a Jewish state. She also often sides with Islamic terrorists, running cover for them while saying 9/11 was a matter of “some people did something.”

Now, she’s clear about her opposition to Netanyahu:

Omar: Netanyahu’s ‘existence’ contradictory to peace

“I certainly hope that the people of Israel make a different decision and my hope is that they recognize that [Netanyahu’s] existence, his policies, his rhetoric really is contradictory to the peace that we are all hoping that region receives and receives soon,” the Minnesota Democrat told Face the Nation on Sunday.

The problem with her statement is that Netanyahu’s policies have been the only thing keeping Israel at relative peace the last decade. Her remarks were meant as a rebuke against the Prime Minister, but it’s not going to be received well by those who understand her politics. Of course she wants Netanyahu out. She wants Israel to be as weak and defenseless as possible.

Considering Iran is rearing its ugly head, demonstrating a willingness to attack its enemies, it’s difficult to see Israel remaining strong and safe without Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm. Now is not the time for cultural experimentation. Stick with Bibi.

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Foreign Affairs

Israel’s election has immense implications for the United States

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Israels election has immense implications for the United States

Is Israel a Jewish state powered by its conservative, religious base or is it a secular state that pushes aside tradition? Is it the unabashed ally of the United States or are they hoping to move forward without input from Washington DC? Those two answers are really what will be decided in Tuesday’s election, and things will change between the United States and its best ally in the Middle East if there’s a major shakeup in the Israel government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life as his Likud Party seeks to not only get the most seats in the Knesset but also help their allies on the right win enough seats to allow the conservatives to form a coalition government. Both obstacles must be overcome in order for his pro-Israel and pro-America agenda to stay intact.

If Benny Gantz and his Blue and White Party are victorious (they tied with Likud in April), then Gantz will likely be tasked with forming a government that is center-left. He’ll need some help from the center-right to form his government, but it will almost certainly be made with an understanding that the policies protecting the ultra-orthodox Jews, which represent around 10% of the population, will be removed. It would also change the direction of any Middle East peace plan the White House may present.

Even if Likud wins but does no have enough seats won by conservative parties, Netanyahu will still have to look to Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu Party to form a coalition. Lieberman refused to side with Netanyahu in April without the ultra-orthodox Jewish protections removed, which forced Israel to have this second round of 2019 elections. Yisrael Beitenu is expected to win even more seats this time, and unless there’s a surge for conservative parties, the new government will be center-right at best as Netanyahu will be forced to form a unity coalition with Lieberman and Gantz.

America needs Netanyahu to stay in power, but we also need his government to be built on a conservative platform. Neither Gantz nor Lieberman are anti-American, but they will not work as diligently on behalf of Israeli and American interests against Iran, Hezbollah, or Hamas. This will compel the United States to take a more active role in the region; currently, a strong Israel allows the United States to be much less aggressive when it comes to preventing catastrophes like a nuclear Iran or the expansion of threats to our interests in the Middle East.

Israelis will decide Tuesday if they like the direction the nation is going or if they want to explore other options. Unfortunately, those “other options” will likely include less engagement with their greatest ally, the United States.

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