For Afghanistan and Pakistan, the alarming escalation of tensions between their common neighbour Iran and the US, their shared geopolitical overlord, could not have come at a worse time.
After 18 years of foreign occupation, Afghanistan’s future stands on the proverbial knife’s edge. On the one hand, peace talks between US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban’s Doha-based diplomats are close to reaching a successful conclusion. A withdrawal of American forces is set to follow, enabling President Donald Trump to deliver on a key promise in an election year.
On the other hand, the Western-backed government in Kabul has lost its credibility, following a farcical presidential election which somehow enabled Ashraf Ghani to retain power.
Rather than accepting he is a lame duck, Ghani is seeking to monopolise the intra-Afghan dialogue that would follow a deal between the US and the Taliban.
His defiance threatens to aggravate violence at this crucial juncture in America’s longest-ever war. It could also split the government and fracture the Afghan military along ethnic lines, inviting a return to the civil war of the 1990s.
Iran is well-positioned to poison both chalices. In voicing its opposition last month to the US-Taliban dialogue, on the grounds that it excluded the Afghan government, Tehran aligned itself with Ghani as a potential co-spoiler.
Iran explained the decision to change its policy in the context of resistance to Washington’s “maximum pressure”, while also reminding Washington that the current political dispensation in Kabul would not have come into existence in 2002 without its cooperation.
Although it currently suits Tehran’s interests to align itself with Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, it exercises greater influence over his Tajik and Hazara rivals, who speak a dialect of Persian and took refuge in Iran during the disastrous Soviet occupation, rather than in Pakistan.
Iran has used this influence to recruit hundreds of Afghan Shia to fight alongside Iranian militias in Syria. Poignantly, this task was overseen by Esmail Ghani, who has succeeded Qassem Soleimani as head of the Quds Force.
Ghani was thus quick to issue a statement assuring Iran that Afghan soil would not be used by US forces stationed there to attack Iran. His predecessor Hamid Karzai, who has led exploratory intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban, has practically pleaded with Iran not to turn Afghanistan into a proxy battlefield.
Pakistan has just as much reason to be alarmed by the prospect of war between the US and Iran. It is deeply invested in the Afghan peace process because a stabilised western border would enable it to focus on its increasingly hostile eastern border with India.
A negotiated peace in Afghanistan would do much to reduce the threat of cross-border terrorist attacks by the remnants of the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its local Daesh-affiliated allies. Their back was broken recently by a coordinated operation that involved US, Afghan and Taliban forces. Still, such gains could easily be reversed if, the overspill of Middle Eastern tensions destabilises Afghanistan.
Decision-makers in Pakistan are also worried about the prospect of proxy warfare along the lengthy border with Iran. On either side lie the two halves of Balochistan, a vast, desolate region that, for decades, has been susceptible to insurgencies.
Historically, Balochistan has been central to the state of relations between Islamabad and Tehran. As long as the Shah was in power, they worked together to defeat nationalist insurgencies fuelled by communist administrations in Kabul.
Since the Islamic revolution, however, Pakistan has aligned itself with Saudi Arabia, while at the same time pleading neutrality in the hostility between Riyadh and Tehran.
Unsurprisingly, this approach has backfired repeatedly, with terrible consequences.
By the 1990s, the Middle East’s rivalries were fuelling a deadly campaign of sectarian terrorism in Pakistan, where the Shia community accounts for roughly 20 per cent of the overwhelming Muslim majority population.
In due course, Sunni militants who formed Al Qaeda connections in the nineties went on to form the TTP. Although greatly diminished after a dozen years of war with the Pakistani military, these sectarian terrorists remain a clear and present danger, especially to Shia communities living close to the Afghan border in Balochistan.
With that in mind, Pakistan flatly refused to join the Saudi-led military coalition that invaded Yemen in 2015, after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels seized most of the country. This infuriated Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, but the benefits to Islamabad’s relationship with Tehran were short-lived. They nosedived after the capture of Kulbushan Jadhav, an alleged Indian spy who operated out of the Iranian port of Chabahar, near the border with Pakistani Balochistan.
Shortly after Imran Khan took power as prime minister in August 2018, Pakistan sought to repair the damage to its relations with the Gulf Arabs and invited the Saudis to set up an oil refinery complex at the Chinese-operated port of Gwadar, located close to the Iranian border.
Since then, cross border attacks by militant separatists on both sides have been on the rise. Fear of a serious escalation prompted talks between Iran’s political leaders and Pakistan’s powerful military in November.
But any goodwill gained was lost when Prime Minister Imran Khan pulled out of the recent Kuala Lumpur summit on Islamic issues at Riyadh’s behest - Iran changed its Afghanistan policy within days.
Nor did it help that Pakistan hosted first the new Saudi Foreign Minister, then Abu Dhabi’s crown prince as events in Iraq escalated to Soleimani’s assassination.
Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s military was quick to reiterate its neutrality in Middle Eastern matters, and army chief of staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa rebuffed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attempt to obtain his support.
Clearly, any further escalation between the US and Iran will not be confined to the Middle East. The success or failure of diplomatic efforts to calm tempers is just as crucial to the stability of South and Central Asia as it is to that of the Middle East.
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