Is containing Iran the US’s chief strategic objective in Afghanistan?

Did the inadvertent gains they gave Iran in Iraq lead US strategists to deliberately leave Afghans to the anti-Iran Taliban?

WrittenBy:David Devadas
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A key fact is being forgotten amid all the amazed commentary on how fast the Taliban took over Afghanistan: that the US has negotiated with the Taliban for more than a decade, in preparation for just this juncture in Afghanistan’s dismal history.

The US was eager for an exit plan by the time those talks began, covertly in Doha at that stage. Those talks indicated that the US had already then chosen the force it would leave in charge of Afghanistan. They prepared the ground for the Taliban to at least share power, and potentially dominate Afghanistan thereafter.

This exit is not just President Biden’s doing. Those talks got going early in the Obama presidency, reached agreement under Trump, and came to fruition when Obama’s vice-president got the top job.

It’s even possible that the way for this was already prepared in the last phase of the Bush presidency. The Pentagon was wringing its hands by then over what to do in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Cold calculation

There’s been little strategic analysis in the media of what’s afoot in Afghanistan, but let’s have no illusions: the US has deliberately handed over Afghanistan to the Taliban. And it knows full well that Pakistan runs the Afghan Taliban.

The script that’s played out was already written. The US could have leaned hard on President Ashraf Ghani if it really wanted the idea of shared power to fructify.

On the other hand, it could have leaned hard on Pakistan if it really didn’t want such rapid advances while some US personnel are still in Afghanistan. But unlike Washington’s telephone call to then-President Musharraf after the 9/11 attack, threatening to blow Pakistan to the stone age, the US has now left Pakistan to its own devices, in what Obama called the “Af-Pak” area even back when the talks with the Taliban began.

The US has not only given Pakistan a whip hand over what unfolds in Afghanistan now, it has in the process given China strategic advantage there, for China’s huge influence over Pakistan is no secret.

It’s possible of course that western analysts did not sufficiently calculate how much influence this course of action would give China over Central Asia. If so, that would only expose how dense they are. A while ago, China, Russia, and Pakistan openly formed a troika to oversee how things go forward in Afghanistan.

In all of this, let us be clear, the US has done in India.

If it really was serious about propping India to counterbalance China, it would have ensured that India had a leading role in how things unfolded in Afghanistan. Instead, it barely gave India a look-in – after India insisted. And that was the Trump administration, which India’s rulers tend to see as their Great Mentor.

Iran’s route to Israel

One has to look beyond the obvious to discern why the US (across at least three presidencies) decided to as good as hand Afghanistan over to the Taliban. It’s a strategic choice.

I am convinced that its obsession with Iran is the chief reason why the US chose this option. US strategists were determined that Iran should not gain even an iota of strategic leverage in a post-US Afghanistan.

This is not only to do with Iran taking US diplomats hostage following the Iranian revolution in 1979. It has far more to do with the awful realisation that dawned around 15 years ago that the disastrous invasion of Iraq had inadvertently opened a land route from Iran to Israel – through the by-then-ungovernable northern Iraq, and Syria and Lebanon, over both of which Iran has huge influence.

Israel is convinced that Iran means to destroy it, and the realisation that a land route was now open no doubt mortified its strategists, and those in the US too.

Civil war broke out in Syria, and the Shia-hating Islamic State gained much ground strength in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. The result: Iran lost what influence it had gained in northern Iraq. (Though Iran had gained much greater influence in southern Iraq, northern Iraq’s proximity to Israel is what mattered.)

Blinkered response

By the time Bush sacked Donald Rumsfeld as defence secretary in 2006, the US had realised that Afghanistan was a quagmire, and that it needed an exit plan. But the lesson from Iraq, newly absorbed by US and Israeli strategists, dictated that Iran must not be allowed to gain strategic leverage when the US exited Afghanistan. Some non-Pashtun Afghan communities, based largely in western Afghanistan, have close cultural and historical ties to Iran.

Pakistan’s smooth-talking generals would have subtly manoeuvred the US to focus on the Taliban. The image of a more liberal, inclusive, worldly wise Taliban – yet deeply rooted in the soil of Afghanistan – was smoothly promoted.

It would seem that strategists blinkered by determination to deny Iran any gains to its east bought the repackaging, hook, line and sinker. Talks got going with the Taliban, covertly in the beginning, through the Doha-based Yufuf al-Qaradawi. Those talks were first reported a full decade ago, in 2011.

Tell-tale exit moves

The way the US military slipped out of its Bagram base, the biggest in Afghanistan, in the dead of night six weeks ago, without intimating even the camp commander, clearly indicates that US strategists knew their exit would not be smooth or pleasant.

For all their talk of peace, unity, and shared power, they evidently realised that the Taliban could attack western forces as they withdrew. They evidently did not trust either their Afghan comrades or the Taliban.

Basically, the plan was to get out, leaving a likely civil war behind.

Get real!

The result of a civil war – even if not its speed – was predictable. More than a decade of talks had laid the ground for the Taliban to take over. Solid tactical and logistical backing from Pakistan was assured.

In leaving this way, the West has washed its hands off the fate of Afghan women, children, rights, laws, and government. Even the huge strategic boost for China, and Russia, didn’t give the West pause.

This ought to be a chilling lesson for those who pass for strategic thinkers in New Delhi. It’s not the first time the US has let down its allies. It won’t be the last.

India can hope for little more than naval support from its Quad partners if India’s neighbours step up hostilities, but cannot count on worthwhile Western backing against the Sino-Pak-Taliban axis if hostilities increase in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.

We are on our own, even as a resurgent Taliban poses a huge potential threat.


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