Russia, Iran and Pakistan could easily undercut US designs in Afghanistan unless they are made a part of the process.

US President Joe Biden is considering to slow down the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and may remove the May 1 exit deadline. 

The Taliban has warned of violence if the Doha deal signed last February is violated. The complete withdrawal, however, was always conditional on the Taliban meeting their commitments to prevent terrorism, and the Pentagon is stressing that. 

While abandoning the US-initiated Doha “peace-talks”, the Taliban – despite UN-documented evidence of responsibility for the killing of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians – has been invited to high level political meetings in Tehran and Moscow.

It is strange how Iran, which in 2001 helped US troops defeat the Taliban, is using the same group 20 years on to upstage American efforts in Afghanistan. 

Iran’s invitation to the Taliban two weeks ago with photos of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif showing respect to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar took many by surprise but it was choreographed to send a message to President Biden that Iran must be involved in decisions on Afghanistan. 

The fact that two days later another Taliban leader, Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanikzai, led another delegation to Russia indicates that Moscow and Tehran had coordinated manoeuvres. Both moves could not have taken place without Pakistan’s approval. 

Iran, Russia and Pakistan share concerns about the potential of continued American presence in Afghanistan with additional troops returning. 

The Taliban’s insistence on the need for the US troop withdrawal echoed across the Iranian press. Zarif told the Taliban they must do all they can to reach peace to ensure “the occupiers have no more reason to be there”. He also stressed that the US is by no means a suitable mediator or judge. 

The chief of Iran’s National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who also met Mullah Baradar welcomed the fact that the Taliban are “determined to fight the US”.

Iran, which has never stopped meddling directly and indirectly in Afghanistan’s political affairs, supporting mainly the Shia Hazara and Tajik groups in the western provinces, seems to be eyeing Taliban power-sharing ideas provided all ethnic groups were included. That is where it wants to work in closer cooperation with Pakistan. 

President Ashraf Ghani remains strictly loyal to the United States and is opposed to any interference by Iran or Pakistan. 

Iran’s former allies in the Northern Alliance, are divided between Dr Abdullah Abdullah – who heads the High Council for National Reconciliation, working in close cooperation with President Ghani – and others such as Ata Mohammad Noor gathering support for a transitional government to upstage Ghani. 

Despite a turbulent relationship in recent years, Tehran and Islamabad appear to be moving closer. Over the past few days Pakistan has helped release the last of the 14 IRGC border guards. 

Additionally through online meetings, Iran and Pakistan have agreed to increase annual bilateral trade to $5 billion. Last month they opened a border crossing point to boost trade. 

One week before the Taliban’s Tehran visit, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan supported Iran by saying he hoped the US sanctions would be lifted. “The Islamic Republic has the capacity to turn into an economic power in the region,” he said.

Meanwhile, Stanikzai as the head of delegation in Moscow warned in a press conference that the Taliban will continue to fight if the Americans don’t leave. He said he hoped Russia would help the final settlement. 

Russia, which fought a 10-year war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, has increasingly played the diplomatic card inviting the Taliban four times. Russia’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, a former KGB agent, has in several interviews expressed concern that the Americans don’t want to leave Afghanistan and that is what brings them close to the Taliban. 

Iran’s Zarif went to Moscow immediately after meeting the Taliban in Tehran and praised the collaboration between the two countries which he said: “goes back longer than the history of the US”.

Iran and Russia cooperate closely on Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, the Caucuses and Central Asia. 

They are both on the frontline of a series of new moves by the US administration. Russia has just signed the renewal of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and Iran is expecting a way forward on its nuclear deal, the JCPOA. They see the roadmap of their relations with the new US administration through that prism. They are weary that too many new demands and controls will soon follow.

Russia and Iran have justifiable security concerns about Afghanistan and want to ensure that if the US presence continues it would include more consultation with them. As such, the Taliban is the pawn in their opening move. 

Pakistan shares this outlook and as such, is willing to play its part. 

They know that the combination of Iran, Russia and Pakistan could undercut the US-initiated “peace talks” in Doha and jeopardise any unsolicited future American designs for Afghanistan.

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