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The removal of Qassem Soleimani from the region’s political chessboard will have implications not only across the Middle East and its various conflict zones but is also likely to reverberate through South Asia, affecting the conflict in Afghanistan and Iran’s bilateral ties with Pakistan.
A History of Animosity
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force has remained an active player within the Afghan theatre since the days of Afghan Jihad, yet it remained a marginal player during the 1980s as its overwhelming focus was the western front with Iran. It was only in the mid-1990s that it became an active player. Iran was concerned by the ascendancy of the Taliban and sought to undermine the Sunni fundamentalist regime that had appeared on its eastern border.
It was during this time that Qassem Soleimani emerged as a prominent player in Afghanistan. When Soleimani became the chief of the IRGC's Quds Force in 1998, Iran and the Afghan Taliban government were on a war footing. And the confrontation only got worse: the 1998 Taliban takeover of the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif from the Uzbek warlord Abdur Rashid Dostum resulted in the killings of nine Iranian diplomats and a journalist. Yet Soleimani argued against the use of direct force and advocated instead for increasing the support for the Northern Alliance, the main anti-Taliban front at that time.
Meanwhile, Iranian ties with Pakistan remained on a downward trajectory during the 1990s as the country witnessed some of the worst sectarian violence perpetrated by Sunni and Shia militant groups backed by Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively. As Pakistan was one of the erstwhile supporters of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, Tehran’s active support for the Northern Alliance was not well received in Islamabad.
Interference in Afghanistan
The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Taliban regime was finally removed from Kabul and the political factions associated with the Northern Alliance were back in power. Yet, for Tehran, a bigger problem was the presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan. This led to Iran’s multifaceted engagement with a range of political and militant actors within Afghanistan. Soleimani’s successor, Ismail Qaani, also played a significant role in Iran’s strategy.
Iran has traditionally supported and held stronger ties with the ethnic Hazara Shia community in Afghanistan. As the Hazaras suffered severe persecution during the Taliban days, they found a natural patron in Iran. Iran also exercised influence over Tajiks in Afghanistan, particularly in the western province of Herat which borders Iran. But the most spectacular aspect of this Iranian engagement was their courting of the Afghan Taliban who resurrected themselves as a powerful insurgent force challenging the authority of the Afghan government and NATO troops across the length and breadth of the country.
Recently disclosed pictures circulating in the Afghan media suggest that General Qaani was operating as the deputy ambassador of Iran to Afghanistan as late as 2018, a story which only emphasises his prime role in managing Iran’s Afghan policy. This does nothing to improve Iran’s relationship with Pakistan, which maintained strong links with the Taliban leadership and considered this incursion by the Iranians as an effort to weaken its hand within Afghanistan.
Iran–Pakistan: A History of Tensions
If Iranian manoeuvres in Afghanistan raised eyebrows in Islamabad, developments on the Iran–Pakistan border further weakened the bilateral relationship. The 2016 capture of the alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav, who entered Pakistan from Iran, was an eye-opener for Pakistan’s security establishment. The episode meant that the Pakistan–Iran border could not be considered a safe zone anymore, and the alleged Indian presence in the Iranian port of Chabahar was a potential threat to Pakistan’s security and strategic interests. It is highly unlikely that the Quds Force was unaware of these activities. Pakistan lodged a strong protest against this development with the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and demanded that Iran was not used as a launch pad for actions against Pakistani national interests.
As Iran–Pakistan relations soured following the Kulbhushan affair, another issue involving the Quds Force came up on the radar of Pakistan’s security circles. This was the recruitment of Pakistani Shias to fight for the Bashar Al-Assad regime in the Syrian civil war. These fighters were grouped under a militia named Liwa Al-Zainabiyoun (or the Zainabiyoun Brigade). General Qaani was a central figure in this recruitment drive in Pakistan. The Pakistani authorities eventually clamped down on a charity organisation that was used as a front group for these activities.
Yet another episode where the Quds Force and the Pakistani authorities had a face-off was the border security situation across the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan and Pakistani Balochistan. The Jundullah, a Sunni Baloch separatist organisation, had waged a low-intensity insurgency within Sistan-Baluchestan, and although Pakistan helped Iran in apprehending its chief, Abdolmalek Regi, the bilateral distrust on the issue never went away. The deaths of 27 IRGC troops in an attack on their bus near the border town of Zahedan in early 2019 prompted a severe response from Iranian authorities. Soleimani cautioned the Pakistani government to stop cross-border terror attacks from its territory and vowed a strong response from Iran if significant progress hasn’t been made by Pakistan on the issue.
The government of Imran Khan in Pakistan tried to address the trust deficit issue with Iran, yet there was no structural change on any of these clash points. Instead of acknowledging and appreciating Pakistan’s efforts to defuse regional tensions, when the Pakistani prime minister visited Iran in October 2019 in an effort to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Iranian supreme leader advised Imran Khan to focus instead on addressing the border security issues between the two sides.
The New Quds Force Commander
The assassination of Soleimani has propelled General Qaani, the Quds Force’s eastern front commander, to the position of overall leader. This development has serious implications for the security situation in Afghanistan and Iran’s relationship with its eastern neighbour.
Under the Trump administration, Pakistan and the US have developed a working relationship and both sides have agreed upon the need for a negotiated settlement of the Afghan conflict. Pakistan has used its influence with the Taliban, essentially keeping the ‘Doha Dialogue’, which takes place periodically in the Qatari capital, alive even after President Trump cancelled talks with the insurgent group.
Yet, Pakistan has been wary of Iran’s attempts to sway the Taliban away from the negotiating table and towards a renewed confrontation with the US on Afghanistan’s battlefields. With Qaani now in charge – someone who knows the Afghan political landscape just as Soleimani knew that of Iraq – there remains a serious possibility that Iran could exact its revenge on the US, not in the Middle East as most commentators have alleged, but in the Afghan theatre, by attempting to derail the Afghan peace process. For Pakistan, ominous signs are already there, with the public appearance of an IRGC spokesperson in a press briefing with the Zainabiyoun group’s flag behind him, alongside the banners of Iran’s other proxy forces across the region.
Perhaps this posturing from Iran has been a direct response to Pakistan’s rather cautious and restrained reaction to the killing of General Soleimani, which evidently infuriated Iran. It also appears that close deliberation between US officials and the Pakistani government on the Soleimani affair has not gone down well in Tehran. By openly admitting its patronage of the Zainabiyoun militia, Tehran has sent a clear message to Islamabad, reminding Pakistan of its capabilities and willingness to use proxy forces against Pakistani interests.
These new developments require enhanced coordination between the US, Pakistan and all other stakeholders involved in Afghanistan to ensure that the Afghan peace process is not derailed, and that Afghanistan does not become a new front in the US–Iran rivalry.
Umer Karim is a Visiting Fellow at RUSI. He is also a doctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham.
BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of Maryam Kamyab, Mohammad Mohsenifar / Mehrnews.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.