How Iran and Pakistan Matter for a Post-US Withdrawal Afghan Landscape

Image Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Sharida Jackson

Strained relations with Pakistan and zero channels of communication with Iran isolate U.S. foreign policy ahead of negotiations with the Taliban and an imminent U.S. troop drawdown. Washington’s newfound acceptance of the Taliban as one of many stakeholders in a political settlement must be matched by a recognition that landlocked Afghanistan will rely on relations with its neighbors after a U.S. departure.

Four conditions arose soon after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan that set the stage for a potential political settlement to the conflict. First, a robust U.S. bombing campaign routed the Taliban out of major Afghan cities including Kabul and Jalalabad. Second, U.S. special operations coupled with the bombing campaign killed or captured many transnational terrorists using the country as refuge. Others were pushed southward where Pakistani intelligence focused on terrorists from outside the region but largely ignored the Taliban. Third, Iran offered its assistance to the U.S. under the leadership of President Khatami and with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s blessing. Lastly, Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) appeared ready to facilitate a political solution that would offer the Taliban an ultimatum: participate politically in the new Afghanistan to survive or resist and be killed.

Tehran was content to see the Taliban government fall and tolerated a limited International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence along its border. Iran provided intelligence to the U.S. and leveraged its cultural ties with Afghanistan’s Dari-speaking population to help win their support for the presidency of Hamid Karzai. Iran also influenced the Bonn Agreement which produced an interim government exclusive of the Taliban that resulted from talks between key anti-Taliban stakeholders. It was the diplomatic intervention of Iran that convinced the Northern Alliance to accede to sharing enough ministries with other factions to facilitate cooperation. According to Alex Vatanka, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was popular “across the political spectrum in Iran” and “only a tiny minority of voices in Tehran bothered to raise the question of a lasting US military presence in Afghanistan, although this issue subsequently became a key concern for Iran.” President Bush’s inclusion of Iran in his 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech torpedoed this effort by emboldening hardliners which led in part to the 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran’s threat perception shifted to view the Taliban as a counterweight to the U.S.

During this same period, Washington became reliant on Pakistan as both a supply route and partner in the Afghanistan conflict. In 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell conferred the status of major non-NATO ally on Pakistan and offered a $1.5 billion dollar military assistance package. According to a report by the Watson Institute at Brown University, approximately 8,832 Pakistani security personnel and 23,372 non-combatant civilians have been killed in the War on Terror. For perspective, the U.S. Department of Defense has reported 2,276 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan and the Watson Institute report calculated 6,951 total U.S. deaths in the War on Terror including Iraq and other locations.

Diplomatic coercion began to define U.S.-Pakistan relations as high casualties turned Pakistan’s public against the war. Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011. Washington’s primary criticism of Pakistan is its periodic support of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network even while it confronts other militant groups. The overall attitude of Pakistan’s military toward the Taliban is one of disdain; however, some within Pakistan’s security establishment predict a Taliban resurgence after a U.S. departure and view Islamist extremism as less of an ideological threat than Pashtun nationalism. They also worry about a strong Indian presence in Kabul. The U.S. adopted a strategy of triadic coercion in response to Islamabad’s inconsistent cooperation in which it uses diplomatic threats and withholds aid to compel Pakistan to abandon support for certain militant groups. However, this strategy failed to radically alter Islamabad’s calculation inside Afghanistan even though the Pakistan Army dealt a successful blow to the Pakistani Taliban.

Lack of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Washington also proved a financial boon for the Taliban. At times, Tehran supported the group to harass U.S. troops and as a retaliation for Washington’s alleged support of Baloch separatist movements. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department designated an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) chief in the border city of Zahedan as a Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker of opium which helps fund the Taliban and accounts for 67 percent of narcotics consumption in Iran. A 249-page counternarcotics report published in 2018 by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) only mentions Iran five times despite the country’s key role as a transit route for Afghan opium. It concluded that despite $8.62 billion spent, no counternarcotics program “resulted in lasting reductions in poppy cultivation or opium production” and production rose from 3,400 metric tons to 9,000 metric tons. Many factors contributed to this loss but Washington’s failure to integrate Iran into its counternarcotics effort and incentivize cooperation certainly contributed.

Neither exclusion of Iran nor a coercive stance toward Pakistan has improved the situation in Afghanistan. Instead, the Taliban managed to maintain some relations with Pakistan and develop new ones with Iran and Russia. The most recent example is the announcement by Iranian state media that Tehran is hosting direct talks with the Taliban. In their book, Triple Axis: Iran’s Relations with Russia and China, Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai note that “although both Tehran and Moscow view the Taliban as a threat, they see the groups as the ‘lesser of two evils’ when weighed against [Islamic State Khorasan Province] ISKP, whose ideology, brutality, and recruitment efforts pose a greater threat to the two nations. Hence, Iran and Russia have provided support to Taliban groups since ISKP began to make gains in Afghanistan following the rise of ISIS in Iraq.” It comes down to a lack of confidence that the Taliban can be defeated militarily coupled with apprehension over the alternatives. Ultimately, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan have little ability to control the Taliban but their cooperation with an inclusive political settlement does have the potential to strengthen the Afghan state.

The Trump administration appears eager to reach a political settlement and leave Afghanistan. “I said that if the menace of terrorism is tackled, the United States is not looking for a permanent military presence in Afghanistan,” U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad reportedly told the Taliban delegation during recent talks. This approach is not a creation of the Trump administration. Speaking recently in Islamabad, former director for South Asian affairs at the Obama administration’s National Security Council, Joshua White, reiterated that the original justification for entering Afghanistan was to prevent a safe haven for transnational terrorists that more closely resemble Al-Qaeda and ISIS than the Taliban. According to former Adviser to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Barnett Rubin, “when [Secretary of Defense] Rumsfeld vetoed the agreement that Karzai made with the Taliban leadership on December 6, 2001, it’s not because he had a different strategy for achieving peace in Afghanistan, it’s because achieving peace in Afghanistan was not the reason the U.S. went into Afghanistan. It was to punish the terrorists and those who harbored them.”

If Trump’s intention is to leave Afghanistan, then Kabul will be pushed to diversify and strengthen its regional relationships regardless of Washington’s other initiatives. For example, the importance to Afghanistan’s stability of India’s $21 billion project to develop Iran’s Chabahar port  forced the Trump administration to grant a sanctions waiver despite its departure from the Iran nuclear deal. According to a Rand report, bilateral trade between Iran and Afghanistan amounted to almost $5 billion in 2013 and Iran was India’s third largest oil supplier in 2017. In Pakistan, the army has made great strides in securing its border and reducing terrorism within its own territory. However, full cooperation from Tehran and Islamabad will require a durable political settlement that presents some immediate benefits to all regional actors.

The Bush administration simultaneously alienated Iran as a potential anti-Taliban ally and rejected offers from Pakistan to facilitate a political solution with Taliban elements that may have been willing to function within the parameters of the new Afghan state. The Obama administration unsuccessfully attempted to overcome the mistakes of its predecessor with a troop surge. Recreating the missed opportunities of 2001-02 nearly two decades later will require the Trump administration to decouple Afghan negotiations from its other regional objectives, prioritize the long-term interests of the Afghan people, and resist the temptation to view influence in Afghanistan as a zero-sum game when stability requires the cooperation of multiple actors, including Iran, Pakistan, India, and Russia.

This post originally appeared on The Diplomat. 

73 Prominent International Relations Scholars Say Iran Deal Will Help Stabilize Middle East

Contact: Jamal Abdi
Phone: (202) 386-6408
Washington, DC – 73 prominent International Relations and Middle East scholars have issued a letter in support of the Iran deal, arguing that it is a “strong and positive step toward stabilizing the Middle East,” and that a potential Congressional rejection of the agreement would further destabilize the region and “reignite Washington and Tehran’s gravitation towards a military confrontation.”

The letter’s signers include some of the most renowned thinkers in the fields of International Relations, political science, and Middle East studies including Professors Richard Bulliet, Noam Chomsky, Juan Cole, John Esposito, Fawaz Gerges, Robert Jervis, Rashid Khalidi, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt and Ehsan Yarshater.
The letter was organized by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).
Scientists and other non-proliferation experts have hailed the agreement’s clear non-proliferation benefits, though the potential positive regional implications of the deal have received comparatively little scrutiny.
“In addition to advancing non-proliferation goals, this agreement could be the key that unlocks solutions to some of the most intractable conflicts in the Middle East,” Trita Parsi, President of NIAC, said. “The region suffers from a diplomacy deficit and the nuclear deal paves the way for an increase in dialogue and diplomacy on a whole set of issues – which is critical for stability in the Middle East.”
In the letter, the scholars argue that an important driver of instability in the region has been the dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. and Iran. Resolving the nuclear issue is a critical step towards taming the US-Iran rivalry and reducing its negative impact on the region.
“For the past 36 years, the US and Iran have been embroiled in a zero-sum geopolitical struggle,” the letter reads. “The arena for this contest has been the larger Middle East, where the two have sought to undermine each other at every given opportunity, at the expense of the stability of the region as a whole.”
“Many of the signers of the letter publicly opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003,” Parsi added. “History proved them right. Clearly they know a thing or two about international relations, the Middle East and Iran.”

See the letter online here.

The Nuclear Agreement with Iran:
A Plus for Regional Stability
Statement from Middle East and International Relations Scholars
The nuclear deal with Iran (The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA) is a strong and positive step towards stabilizing the Middle East, beyond its undeniable non-proliferation benefits.
The Middle East is in turmoil. It is suffering from a broad range of problems that all, one way or another, contribute to the instability plaguing the region. Increasingly, the instability is not in the form of inter-state violence, but rather intra-state bloodshed with the eventual collapse of the states themselves.
While the region’s problems have many sources, one critical driver of instability has been the dysfunctional relationship between the West and Iran in general, and US-Iran tensions in particular.
For the past 36 years, the US and Iran have been embroiled in a zero-sum geopolitical struggle. The arena for this contest has been the larger Middle East, where the two have sought to undermine each other at every given opportunity, at the expense of the stability of the region as a whole.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, US-Iran competition significantly contributed to the destabilization of these two countries. In other countries, the two have funded and backed rivaling groups, adding fuel to an already destabilizing fire.
Even at moments where both sides desired an opportunity to tame their rivalry, the absence of a dialogue between the US and Iran closed off all paths towards de-escalation.
While the JCPOA is primarily a non-proliferation agreement that successfully closes off all weaponization pathways in the Iranian nuclear program, it carries with it significant peace dividends by making diplomacy and dialogue available for conflict resolution – a necessary step to tackle all of the region’s sources of tensions, be they terrorism, sectarianism, or unilateralism.
The region suffers from a diplomacy deficit and the mere fact that the US and Iran can talk to each other again is in and of itself a stabilizing factor for the Middle East and an encouragement for regional rivals to pursue dialogue instead of proxy fights.
Indeed, the carnage in Syria can not be ended in the absence of US-Iran diplomacy. Nor can the threat of the ISIS be neutralized without US-Iran dialogue and possibly cooperation.  The plague of sectarianism will not be halted unless the US has the ability to engage with all sides of that divide. The deal can prod constructive diplomacy in ever wider circles across the region in part by providing a successful example of patient, win-win negotiations.
Clearly, the nuclear deal will not automatically or immediately bring stability to the region. But reactivating diplomatic channels between the United States and Iran is a necessary first step. Ultimately, a Middle East, where diplomacy is the norm rather than the exception, will enhance US national security and interests.
Conversely, a Congressional rejection of the deal will further destabilize the region. Such a move will isolate the United States while Iran will be freed from the nuclear constraints the deal would impose on it. Beyond the proliferation risk this would entail, US-Iran tensions will increase once more and reignite Washington and Tehran’s gravitation towards a military confrontation.
As such, we urge the members of the US Congress, as well as the leaders of the P5+1 states and Iran, to swiftly endorse the JCPOA and fully implement it. The historic agreement will prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and can prove that through creative diplomacy, the most complex conflicts can be resolved peacefully
Endorsed by:
1.     Prof. Ervand Abrahamian, City University of New York
2.     Prof. Gordon Adams, Emeritus, American University
3.     Prof. Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, University of London
4.     Prof. Robert Art, Brandeis University
5.     Prof. Reza Aslan, University of California Riverside
6.     Prof Guitty Azarpay, University of California Berkeley
7.     Prof. Kathryn Babayan, University of Michigan
8.     Prof. Shiva Balaghi, Brown University
9.     Dr. Bahman Baktiari, Executive Director, International Foundation for Civil Society
10.   Prof. Ali Banuazizi, Boston College
11.   Prof. Asef Bayat, University of Illinois
12.   Prof. William O. Beeman, University of Minnesota
13.   Prof. Peter Beinart, City University of New York
14.   Prof. Seyla Benhabib, Yale University
15.   Prof. Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Syracuse University
16.   Prof. Richard Bulliet, Columbia University
17.   Prof. Erica Chenoweth, University of Denver
18.   Prof. Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
19.   Prof. Juan Cole, University of Michigan
20.   Prof. Dale Copeland, University of Virginia
21.   Prof. Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University
22.   Prof. Dick Davis, Ohio State University
23.   Prof. Michael C. Desch, University of Notre Dame
24.   Prof. Carl W. Ernst, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
25.   Prof. Hadi S. Esfahani, University of Illinois
26.   Prof. John Esposito, Georgetown University
27.   Prof. Stephen W. Van Evera, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
28.   Prof. Tom Farer, University of Denver
29.   Prof. Farideh Farhi, University of Hawai’i at Manoa
30.   Prof. Sumit Ganguly, Indiana University
31.   Prof. Gene R. Garthwaite, Dartmouth College
32.   Prof. Mark Gasiorowski, Tulane University
33.   Prof. Fawaz A. Gerges, London School of Economics and Political Science
34.   Prof. George C. Herring, University of Kentucky
35.   Prof. Robert Jervis, Columbia University
36.   Prof. Kevan Harris, University of California Los Angeles
37.   Prof. Ross Harrison, Georgetown University
38.   Prof. Nader Hashemi, University of Denver
39.   Prof. Richard Herrmann, Ohio State University
40.   Amb. Robert Hunter, Center for Transatlantic Relations.
41.   Prof. Shireen Hunter, Georgetown University
42.   Prof. Toby C. Jones, Rutgers University
43.   Prof. Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, University of Maryland
44.   Prof. Arang Keshavarzian, New York University
45.   Prof. Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University
46.   Prof. Rami Khouri, American University, Beirut
47.   Prof. Elizabeth Kier, University of Washington
48.   Prof. Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
49.   Prof. Deborah Welch Larson, University of California Los Angeles
50.   Dr. Judith A. Lerner, New York University
51.   Prof. Peter Liberman, City University of New York
52.   Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, Columbia University
53.   Prof. John Mearsheimer, University of Chicago
54.   Prof. Najmedin Meshkati, University of Southern California
55.   Prof. Mohsen Milani, University of South Florida
56.   Prof. Stephen Miller, Harvard University
57.   Prof. Timothy Mitchell, Columbia University
58.   Prof. Mehdi Noorbaksh, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology
59.   Prof. Trita Parsi, National Iranian American Council / Georgetown University
60.   Prof. Paul Pillar, Georgetown University
61.   Prof. D. T. Potts, New York University
62.   Prof. William B. Quandt, University of Virginia
63.   Prof. R.K. Ramazani, University of Virginia
64.   Prof. Brian Spooner, University of Pennsylvania
65.   Prof. Tamara Sonn, Georgetown University
66.   Prof. Ahmad Sadri, Lake Forest College
67.   Prof. Mahmoud Sadri, Texas Woman’s University and the Federation of North Texas Area Universities
68.   Prof. Muhammad Sahimi, University of Southern California
69.   Prof. Emile Sahliyeh, University of North Texas
70.   Prof. Randall Schweller, Ohio State University
71.   Dr. John Tirman, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
72.   Prof. Stephen Walt, Harvard University
73.   Prof. Ehsan Yarshater, Columbia University
Added Signatures:
74.   Prof. Niloofar Haeri, Johns Hopkins University
75.   Prof. Thomas Juneau, University of Ottawa
76.   Dr. Abbas Kadhim, Johns Hopkins University
77.   Prof. Mohsen Kadivar, Duke University
78.   Prof. Philip Khoury, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
79.   Prof. Peter Kuznick, American University
80.   Dr. Mojtaba Mahdavi, University of Alberta
81.   Prof. Augustus R. Norton, Boston University
82.   Prof. Rouzbeh Parsi, Lund University
83.   Prof. Omid Safi, Duke University
84.   Prof. Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, Virginia Tech