Following the US killing of the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, on January 3, the government in Kabul was quick to provide a diplomatic response to its strategic ally, the US, and its major economic partner and western neighbor, Iran, on January 4.
While the Afghan government’s response hit the right note in reassuring the Afghan people, the agitation visible on social media and on the streets of Kabul highlighted Afghans’ sensitivity towards political and security challenges beyond their borders and their wariness over the breakout of more violence.
Why is there no chance of spillover?
Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan does not have a politicalized and militarized Shia community to offer strong support for the Iranian regime squarely based on sectarian sentiments. While many Shia Afghans have a predilection for Iran and Iranian culture, as they have been exposed to it due to migration and the media, this is more based on a sense of Shia-communal identity, rather than consent or approval of the Iranian regime’s politics or policies.
On the contrary, many Shia-Afghans, like Sunni-Afghans, are well aware of the belligerent role that Iran played in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s. While millions of Afghans, and particularly Shia Afghans, were provided refuge in Iran after the Soviet invasion, this did not always come at a friendly price. Systematic racial and ethnic discrimination against Afghan refugees – especially against the Hazara community – continues to dominate the narrative of young and old Afghan returnees from Iran to this day. These experiences, despite the cultural and linguistic proximity between Iran and Afghanistan, have prevented a genuine and sizable pro-Tehran lobby group to take shape in Afghanistan. Staunch pro-Tehran sentiments remain mostly limited to the leadership tier of some political parties.
Besides, Shia-based political parties – which since the US invasion have mostly been dominated by the Hazara community – are split along personality-centric lines. Like all the ethnic-based political parties, they usually side with one of the two main rival political blocs in Kabul for their share of power.
The significance of Soleimani and what he represented remains highly controversial among the Shia and Hazara communities as they are not a monolithic group and remain largely divided along varying political and ideological lines, like most other communities in Afghanistan.
Implications of the US-Iran crisis for US-Taliban negotiations
The Iraqi parliament’s vote to expel US troops from the country, prompting the government in Bagdad to overtly demonstrate its allegiance to Tehran, makes it highly unlikely that the Trump administration will pull out its troops from Afghanistan in order to seal a peace deal with the Taliban. Despite the latest statement by US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien on January 12 that a deal with the Taliban could be reached in 2020 and the US military footprint will be reduced – not completely withdrawn – it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will risk losing the Washington-friendly Kabul government after appearing to have lost Baghdad.
While a complete US troop withdrawal would certainly weaken the Kabul government’s position in any intra-Afghan dialogue with the Taliban, it will also reduce US leverage and clout in the region. And, since a partial troop reduction is not what the Taliban demanded and will settle for after 18 years of bloody insurgency, despite claims to the contrary among some experts, a deal between the US and the Taliban seems ever more improbable in the light shifting regional dynamics.
Maryam Baryalay is a security analyst and deputy director of the Kabul-based Organization for Social Research and Analysis.