Russia and Iran: Disappointed Friends of the Taliban?

The special representative of the Russian president for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, meets with Taliban officials in Moscow in May 2019. Courtesy of Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Despite having provided support to the Taliban in their takeover of Afghanistan, Russia and Iran are growing increasingly concerned by the new government’s direction.

The Iranian authorities were careful from the beginning in welcoming the ascent to power of the Taliban in August, whereas the Russian authorities were initially much more positive. Increasingly, however, they have been facing the same predicament, with the Taliban swiftly distancing themselves from both.

Both the Russians and the Iranians helped the Taliban advance at a breakneck pace in May–August 2021. They contributed to funding and equipping them, but perhaps even more importantly they helped them by brokering deals with parties, groups and personalities close to either country, or even both. In order to achieve deals between the Taliban and Iran and Russia’s clients and allies, the latter were promised that they would be incorporated into a future coalition government. At that time, both the Iranians and the Russians almost certainly thought that a coalition government would be formed before the fall of Kabul, as the US also believed. Indeed, as late as 14 August this was what most actors on the Afghan scene believed.

The Iranians began to seriously worry when Kabul fell into the hands of the Haqqani network, a sub-component of the Taliban they have always had poor relations with. The Iranians must have been especially concerned by the Haqqanis’ record of hostility towards Shi’a Muslims. The Haqqanis’ leadership council, the Miram Shah Shura, has never allowed Shi’as to join it, in contrast to the Quetta Shura, which has attracted a small number of Shi’as. The Haqqanis were also involved in the November 2018 raid on Jaghori, a Hazara (Shi’a) district of Ghazni province, which until then had not seen much direct impact from the war. The Taliban’s supremo, Haibatullah Akhund, had opposed the raids, according to a source in the Leadership Council of the Taliban at the time, but in a rare episode of the leader being outvoted, the Council approved the plan. The Haqqanis led the offensive, which they exploited to harass the local Shi’a population. Even more ominously and provocatively for Iran, they took with them a number of Iranian Baluchi fighters opposed to the Iranian regime.

The cabinet announced on 5 September was anything but a coalition

The Iranians were probably becoming worried even before Kabul fell into the Haqqanis’ hands. The Revolutionary Guards helped the Taliban’s advance in western Afghanistan, including by lobbying various strongmen and militia commanders linked to Iran not to resist the Taliban. However, by the time the Taliban reached Herat, a major influx began to take place of Iranian Baluchi fighters belonging to the main anti-Islamic Republic group Jaysh ul Adl from Pakistan into Herat and Nimruz. Their appearance was in all likelihood sponsored by the Haqqani network, which has some presence in western Afghanistan as well. The turning point, however, was the Haqqanis’ surprise capture of Kabul, which upset all of Iran’s plans.

The Russians were slower in identifying the issues arising from the Haqqanis’ capture of Kabul, and were possibly also reassured initially by the start of negotiations between the Taliban and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and former President Hamid Karzai over the formation of a coalition government – all the more so given the very close relationship that the Russians had built with Karzai after he left power in 2014.

However, the negotiations over a coalition government, in which the head of the Taliban’s political commission, Mullah Baradar, played a key role, fairly quickly became stuck. It is not even clear that Baradar had the full backing of the rest of the Taliban’s leadership for the offers that he was making to the camp represented by Abdullah and Karzai. Sources close to Abdullah say that at one point Baradar had gone as far as offering a 30% share of power, as long as Karzai and Abdullah were able to bring in all the main former stakeholders of the Islamic Republic, including in particular the Panjshiris led by Ahmad Massud. It is not known whether negotiations subsequently became stuck because of Massud’s refusal to accept the terms offered by Baradar, or because Baradar could not secure support from the majority of the leadership for his proposal of a coalition government – or indeed because of a combination of these two factors and other factors as well. The fact is that the cabinet announced on 5 September was anything but a coalition, and Baradar was sidelined.

Although the Taliban have been promising to continue coalition talks, in reality they stopped meeting with Abdullah and Karzai, despite requests (from Abdullah at least) for further meetings. It is at this point that the Russians started to become worried too. Although Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov has continued to display optimism, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and others have started raising concerns about the lack of representation for ethnic minorities and hinted that they would not attend the inauguration ceremony for the new government if it was not an inclusive one.

Among Iran and Russia’s clients and allies, there is disillusionment that promises of a decent future in a Taliban-led government have not been met

The Iranian media experienced some friction with the Taliban shortly after the fall of Kabul. Outside the government, the Iranian public and the political class showed little sympathy or trust for the Taliban. The announcement of the first cabinet of the Second Emirate was, however, a worse shock for Iran than it was for Russia. Not only was the promised coalition with non-Taliban figures non-existent, but none of Iran’s numerous allies and clients within the Taliban were included among the 33 members of the Taliban appointed on 5 September (ministers, deputy ministers and some other senior government positions). What is most striking is that the entire west and southwest of Afghanistan, where Iran’s influence is strongest, was not represented at all among the appointees – the only exception being Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, who despite being from Helmand is an integral part of the leadership group and does not represent local Helmandi interests. It stands out that there was no representation for the Taliban’s Ishaqzai and Alizai networks in Helmand, who have given the Taliban more fighters than any other group in recent years, as well as the two foremost military leaders of the final campaign of May–August 2021 (Ibrahim Sadr and Abdul Qayum Zakir). The west and the southwest were the only regions that were not represented among the appointees, alongside the Shi’a-populated central Hazarajat region, where the Taliban have the smallest following.

The Iranians were clearly unnerved by the development, which can only have been a deliberate message to Tehran. Their foreign ministry then began to criticise the Taliban for their assault on Panjshir and for ‘foreign interference’ (a thinly veiled reference to Pakistan’s alleged role in the formation of the cabinet and in the fighting in Panjshir). The Taliban’s spokesperson rebuked the Iranians, reminding them that they were in no position to advocate for religious minorities in Afghanistan, given their own refusal to appoint any Sunnis to senior positions in Iran.

Among Iran and Russia’s clients and allies in Afghanistan, there is disillusionment that the two countries’ promises of a decent future in a Taliban-led government have not been met, especially within the ranks of parties such as the mostly Tajik Jami’at-i Islami and various Hazara groups. The Taliban seem to be suggesting that they want groups and individuals to accept the Emirate first before rewarding them with appointments, whereas the powerful ex-stakeholders of the Islamic Republic would like a more equal approach. So far, none of the numerous factions of Jami’at-i Islami and only one small Shi’a party (Harakat-i Islami) have agreed to recognise the Emirate. The Revolutionary Guards, however, have so far discouraged armed opposition to the Taliban, telling their friends to wait. The Panjshiris went ahead alone, meeting with disaster. It is clear that only if Russia and Iran decided to support it would an armed opposition within Afghanistan stand a chance of success. For now, they are exploring other avenues, probably trying to figure out whether they could engineer a change of allegiances at the top of the Taliban or lobbying for more space in Kabul. Ibrahim Sadr, a key Revolutionary Guards ally among the Taliban, reportedly visited Iran for talks, and upon returning to Afghanistan was appointed deputy minister of the interior, making him the first major pro-Iran Talib to join the executive. As part of a move to appease the Helmandi networks, his colleague Zakir was also made deputy minister of defence.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Senior Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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