The 33-member Afghanistan cabinet is an indication of the direction in which the volatile region will move until some other shock comes and changes the course. The development so far gives the impression that it is a work in progress since the Taliban, despite quick victory and government formation, is not exactly a cohesive group. The final outcome will depend on which splinter group among the new Afghan rulers will eventually emerge on top. While as many as 14 members of the cabinet are on the UN Security Council’s terrorism blacklist, the prominent-most appointee is Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani who carries a $ 10 million US bounty on his head. The terrorist tag, however, is mere stuff for news headlines to shock the uninitiated. That many such “designated” terrorists would come to power in Kabul under a new regime was a forgone conclusion when Washington had signed the Doha agreement with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar who features prominently on the UN blacklist. The question is with the induction of the likes of Mullah Hasan, a close associate of Taliban founder Mullah Omar or Haqqani, did Washington lose its possible influence over Afghanistan since Baradar is only a deputy prime minister now?
The fact that it was Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence chief Faiz Hameed who had visited Kabul before the Taliban announced its cabinet indicates that Washington’s favoured negotiator Qatar could not influence much the formation of the new Afghan government. This worry could be seen in the visit of the US Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns who rushed to the subcontinent and met the Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI chief Faiz Ahmed. Clearly, Washington was caught off guard.
That Washington had handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan lackadaisically could be seen in the failure to address the four issues mentioned in the Doha agreement. Signed in early 2020, the agreement had mentioned four issues. These are reducing violence, withdrawing foreign troops, starting intra-Afghan negotiations, and guaranteeing that Afghanistan won’t again become a refuge for terrorists. Only the withdrawal has taken place although Washington and even the global opinion peddlers decided to wink at the other three. Propagation of virtues of democracy and free-market have liberally taken a backseat.
The US botch-up in Afghanistan pleased Iran, a staunch adversary of the Americans. New Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi hoped, “America’s military defeat must become an opportunity to restore life, security, and durable peace in Afghanistan.” But did Tehran gain anything other than the satisfaction of seeing the Americans humiliated? The Taliban cabinet does not give any reason for Tehran to cheer. The cabinet is not multi-ethnic. Baradar, the favoured negotiator, is not on the saddle but is just one of the two deputies to the prime minister. Not that Baradar would have been a great ally of Raisi, given their historical Shi’ah-Sunni discord, but Iran would have hoped that its neighbour and ally Qatar would have influenced the new Afghanistan government. Iran has a century-old dispute over the waters of River Helmand, which has its origin in the western Hindukush Mountain range of Afghanistan and empties into Lake Hamun in Iran.
Tehran accuses Kabul of depriving Iran of its due share of the river water. What is more, the government of Afghanistan built a dam on the Helmand on the border with Iran. The Kamal Khan Dam opened in March 2021. Tehran is concerned that the dam would significantly decrease the flow of the Helmand. Iran needs a government in Kabul that will not dry its Sistan and Baluchistan province on the Afghan border.
While the new Iranian government has merely expressed discomfort at the Taliban actions on the rebels in the Panjshir valley, the fact remains that Iran is not comfortable with the apparent Pakistani influence over the new Afghan government. Perhaps Tehran is sensing that the US will be back meddling in Afghanistan through Pakistan. Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used harsh words for the Taliban. To him, the Taliban is “a group, created and then trained, armed and supported by the neighbours. It has captured a country and called itself the government. The world had either been watching or supporting. This is an ugly thing in the face of the world.” Clearly, Iran has no reason to feel elated at the sign of continued US presence through Pakistan as a proxy. Meanwhile, Qatar is busy negotiating between the US and Iran over the 2015 nuclear deal though the anti-West hardliner Iranian President Raisi might not rush to break bread with President Biden.\
For the time being, the new government of Afghanistan is a cause for concern for both Iran and the US. But the latter has its somewhat reliable ally in Pakistan to bank on while Iran does not enjoy a good rapport with a Sunni-dominated Pakistan. What is more, Iran felt that the new Taliban government was nothing but a Pashtun-led dispensation with no presence of persecuted Persian-speaking Hazarahs or any others from minorities Tajiks, Uzbeks or any Shi’ah. Iran is concerned that the Taliban would persecute the Hazarahs again as it did 20 years ago. Iran has its trained proxies in Syria and Iraq to defend Shi’ahs. The attack on non-Taliban mujahedeen, like Massoud in Panjshir, coupled with failure to form a multi-ethnic government in Afghanistan, has rattled Iran. How Tehran reacts and when is something to be seen. For the US, maintenance of working relations with the Taliban is important for its continued geopolitical influence, but for Iran, the issue is deeper, an age-old rivalry and ethnic conflict.
A lot, however, will depend on the possible negotiation with the US over the nuclear deal. Iran is unlikely to concede any change from the previous deal. Even President Raisi has stressed that Iran will not accept the inclusion of its missile capability in any talks with the US. If US President Joe Biden climbs down from the Trump administration’s position and manages to end the tussle with Iran, Iran’s conflict with the Taliban government may not blow up into a major struggle in the region, at least not in the near term. As of now, both the US and Iran does not quite savour the new administration of Kabul. How they feel in the future will depend on how the Taliban administration carries its policies and how eager Washington is to end the conflict with Iran.