With US gone, Iran, Turkey aim to expand reach in Afghanistan

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Iran and Turkey, two Muslim countries that sometimes clash with the United States, seek to play a larger role in Afghanistan in the face of a comprehensive United States withdrawal from the war-torn country.

As part of a phased withdrawal that the United States had previously agreed with the Taliban, American forces evacuated their main military base in Afghanistan on June 3, ending the longest war in the history of the United States. United States. But alongside the US exit, there is an escalating conflict in which the Taliban achieve increasing territorial gains as Afghan government forces retreat further, despite their continued dialogue aimed at reaching a peace deal. .

While the United States has effectively left Afghanistan to its own devices, other high-stakes powers are stepping up their attempts to promote stability, and the escalation of violence has made this more urgent. For Iran, which has long opposed the US presence in the region, the US withdrawal means there could be a new chapter in Afghanistan.

Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint near Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, Afghanistan, April 2, 2020. / Reuters

Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint near Bagram Air Base north of Kabul, Afghanistan, April 2, 2020. / Reuters

“As foreign forces leave Afghanistan, there remain no obstacles for Afghans of all political stripes to chart a peaceful and prosperous future for the next generation. Iran stands by our Afghan brothers,” the Afghan tweeted. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif earlier this week.

A major Shia Muslim power in the Middle East, Iran shares a long and fragile border with Afghanistan and has always viewed the conflict-ridden country as a threat to its security.

“For a very long time, Iran has had broad security interests in Afghanistan,” said Zhang Jiadong, director of the Center for South Asian Studies at Fudan University.

To seek influence and promote stability there, Tehran has tried to gain a foothold using both soft and hard power while also mediating between the Taliban and the Afghan government, he said. he declared to CGTN.

On Wednesday, Zarif hosted a meeting of representatives of the Afghan government and a high-level Taliban political committee in Tehran, expressing Iran’s willingness to help. “Iran is ready to assist the process of dialogue between the existing factions in Afghanistan to resolve the current conflicts and crises in that country,” he said at the meeting.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, in Baghdad, Iraq, July 19, 2020. / Reuters

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks during a press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein, in Baghdad, Iraq, July 19, 2020. / Reuters

It is unclear what role Iran will play in the peace process, but it has previously been suspected of providing covert aid to Taliban fighters against US forces, especially after former US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. And that may have fueled Kabul’s mistrust of Tehran.

Nonetheless, the US withdrawal tipped the balance of power in Afghanistan. Tehran, which supports an inclusive Afghan government, could change its policy and start playing a more neutral role, Zhang said. “He wants to see an Afghanistan in peace rather than in chaos.”

While the departure of the United States means that Iran has more room to assert its influence, so does Turkey. Like Iran, Ankara has hosted talks between Kabul and the Taliban, and as a NATO member that supports US military operations in Afghanistan, Turkey has forces on the ground that could translate into assets supporting its ambitions.

At the NATO summit last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered his US counterpart Joe Biden a deal suggesting that Turkey could take over security operations at the civilian airport in Kabul, a gateway that , if it is secure against Taliban insurgents, connects the political center of Afghanistan with the rest of the world.

Turkey’s dedication to Afghanistan is in line with its approach to South and Central Asia, where Ankara seeks to gain a foothold, said Tang Zhichao, director of political studies at the Institute of Studies of West Asia and Africa from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

A less important reason behind the offer is that Turkey wants to reestablish relations with the United States, he told CGTN.

Since Biden, who once called Erdogan an “autocrat,” was elected to the White House late last year, the Turkish president has worked to ease tensions with the United States. presence in Afghanistan, is seen as another olive branch that Ankara extended to the Biden administration.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 14, 2021. / Reuters

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 14, 2021. / Reuters

Turkey has long been an active participant in NATO operations in Afghanistan. As the only Muslim country among NATO members, it has succeeded in serving a particular purpose – bridging the gap between its Western allies and the local Muslim community – which has always been appreciated by the West, especially the United States, Tang explained.

With forces including non-combat troops deployed in Afghanistan, Turkey has managed the airport operation for six years.

Ankara is also confident in its ability to provide security at the airport, Tang noted.

“The Taliban certainly see Turkey differently from what they think of other NATO members,” noted Zhang, adding that the insurgent group might appreciate Turkey’s role in leading an Islamist campaign in the country. the Sunni Muslim world.

A US-Turkish deal seems increasingly possible as the two sides, according to the Turkish defense ministry, had “constructive and positive” discussions on the issue earlier this week. But if the deal is made and Turkey leaves its forces behind, that might not bode well for the Taliban, who insist that Afghanistan be rid of all foreign forces.

Aerial view of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, formerly known as Kabul International Airport, in Afghanistan, February 11, 2016. / Reuters

Aerial view of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, formerly known as Kabul International Airport, in Afghanistan, February 11, 2016. / Reuters

“Once the United States leaves, the Taliban may see the airport as one of their main targets, and Turkey’s continued military presence will be at great risk,” Tang said.

“There will be a lot of uncertainties,” he said. “Turkey has intervened militarily in many countries around the world, and at times these measures have been shown to be counterproductive.”


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