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Taliban’s Thrust: No Surprise, but Maybe an Opportunity

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Taliban fighters in the Afghan presidential palace, on Sunday
Taliban fighters in the Afghan presidential palace, on SundayCredit: Zabi Karimi/AP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

There’s no disputing the fact that the Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan – which is provoking a sense of déjà vu from 30 years ago and also, rightly, recalls scenes from Vietnam in 1975 – is seriously harming the United States’ standing in the world and is casting a shadow over the Middle East too. As one of America’s strategic allies, Israel is certainly hurt by the image of the superpower in decline. But in terms of international relations and interests, what is happening in Afghanistan is not a zero-sum game.

China and Russia, America’s rivals for world hegemony, also need to be concerned. The Taliban could try to export terror to Central Asia in order to destabilize the “stans” – primarily Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. China, which is oppressing its Muslim Uyghur minority, shares this fear.

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The same goes for Iran. The establishment of a Taliban government in Kabul by a Sunni movement with a religious-fundamentalist ideology does not bode well for the Shiite regime in Tehran. And from that point of view, Israel could benefit in an indirect way.

Iran has a lengthy 950-kilometer (590-mile) border with Afghanistan, in the vicinity of Balochistan, a province that straddles the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. On the Afghan side, the border has been controlled by means of three properly managed crossings that have now been seized by the Taliban, whose personnel are now rubbing shoulders with the Iranian border guards. But most of the area is wide open to smugglers, thieves and Balochi Sunni militias that are opposed to the Iranian regime and sometimes launch hit-and-run terror attacks on it.

According to foreign reports, the Mossad exploited the situation to smuggle across these borders Iranian Jews whose lives were in danger or who were barred from leaving their country in the 1980s and 1990s (and ended up in Israel).

French military personnel boarding a plane leaving Afghanistan, on Sunday.Credit: ETAT MAJOR DES ARMEES/ REUTERS

Until about a decade ago, the most prominent of Sunni militant organizations in the area was Jundallah (“God’s Soldiers”), also known as the People’s Resistance Movement of Iran. Jundallah was founded in 2002 with the aim of protecting the Balochi minority from discrimination in Iran, primarily in Sistan and Balochistan Province. The regime in Tehran maintains that the movement was behind numerous terror attacks in recent years and has accused it of conspiring with Al-Qaida, and of receiving support from the Pakistani intelligence service ISI, the British MI6, the American CIA and the Mossad in order to undermine Iran’s central government. During his tenure as Mossad chief in the first decade of this millennium, Meir Dagan often spoke about Iran’s complex ethno-religious mosaic, including the Balochi Sunnis, as one of Iran’s vulnerabilities.

In February 2010, in a bold operation that was probably facilitated by the Islamic State, Iranian intelligence abducted Jundallah leader Abdolmalek Rigi on a flight from Dubai to Kyrgyzstan. He was flown to Tehran, where he was tried and convicted of acts of terrorism and murder, and executed by hanging. Since then, the organization has weakened, but the regime change in Kabul could give it new life.

Afghanistan is the world’s largest exporter of hard drugs, especially heroin and opium. According to United Nations reports, 84 percent of the world’s opium production in the past five years came from Afghanistan. Much of it is smuggled into Iran. Some remains in the country for local consumption – Iran has one of the world’s highest percentages of addicts (and prostitutes) per capita – and the rest is transported across Iran into Turkey or Iraq, and then on to Europe. Taliban leaders have traditionally been involved in the drug trade and have profited from it.

A majority of the air strikes conducted by Iran’s outdated air force (comprising U.S. Phantom jets and F-14s, as well as Russian MiGs and Sukhois) have targeted smugglers and militias in the border areas with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The hard-to-defend and poorly supervised borders have enabled millions of Afghans to sneak into Iran in search of work and a better future during the past three decades. The stream of refugees has swelled in recent weeks as the Afghan army and security forces have collapsed like a house of cards. Tehran has thus tried to beef up border security and various reports say that Iranian army units have replaced the regular border guards. The aim is to prevent refugees from entering and to send them back to Afghanistan – but that hasn’t really happened.

Now Tehran is expected to pay the socioeconomic price of the refugees flooding into its territory in search of a livelihood. And this is all happening when Iran’s economic situation is already in dire straits due to the pandemic and the sanctions regime, which the United States will not lift as long as Tehran persists in its refusal to return to the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran is trying to keep the Afghan refugees moving toward Iraq and Turkey, and boosting their hopes of continuing from there to Europe, but neither of those two countries, crumbling under the weight of millions of Syrian and other refugees, is about to welcome the Afghans with open arms.

It’s true that the influx of refugees to Iran enabled it in recent years to recruit mercenaries from among their ranks, and to assemble the Shiite militias now operating in Yemen and Syria. Iran paid the recruits a monthly salary of several hundred dollars, trained them and sent them off to the killing fields with the promise that, when they completed their service, they and their families would be granted official residency in the country.

A Taliban militant by the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on MondayCredit: STRINGER/ REUTERS

These militias, especially in Syria, played an important role in the Iranian effort (in collaboration with Hezbollah, in Lebanon) to establish a new front opposite Israel in the Golan Heights. The vision of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was assassinated in an American operation with Israeli intelligence assistance, was to settle 100,000 Shiites along the border with Israel so they would serve as a frontline corps in the event of war. Israeli air force strikes against Iran and the Shiite militias seeking a foothold in Syria kept this vision from coming to fruition. Currently, there are several hundred Iranian and Hezbollah advisers in Syria, and several thousand imported Shiites.

But this presence has thinned, too, in recent months. Some weeks ago, in anticipation of the events about to unfold in Afghanistan, the Revolutionary Guards began evacuating some of the Shiite militias in Syria to use as reinforcements in the event of the Taliban’s takeover.

As noted, Iran’s hostility toward and apprehension about Taliban rule has numerous roots – a shared border, the drug trade, economic interests, the refugee problem and contrasting political interests – but above all is the unbridgeable conflict between their religious ideologies and outlooks.

In the early 1990s, the Taliban, who have Pashtun tribal origins like the majority of Pakistan’s population, seized control of Afghanistan. This happened in the wake of Soviet military personnel being swept out of that country in 1989. The Afghans were aided in this effort by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the CIA and Saudi Arabia.

The Taliban’s reign of terror, motivated largely by the goal of achieving “fundamentalist Sunni purity,” a thirst for power and the ethnic and religious oppression of minorities, has also hurt the Hazara, a persecuted Shiite minority. The Islamic Republic of Iran sees itself as the representative and defender of Shiite communities around the world, a perception that’s somewhat similar to Israel’s view of its relations to the Jewish people. Because of this, and after Taliban forces slaughtered eight Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist at the consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, Tehran considered invading Afghanistan, but refrained at the last moment.

During the 20 years of U.S. dominance and influence, Iran had an ambivalent attitude toward Afghanistan. It maintained good relations with the pro-Western central government in Kabul, which was propped up by the American military, but at the same time, Iranian intelligence secretly cultivated channels of dialogue with the Taliban. On several occasions, President Donald Trump accused the regime in Tehran of aiding the Taliban in operations against U.S. and NATO forces.

From time to time, American military and intelligence officials have accused Tehran of providing a haven for senior commanders of Al-Qaida, the Taliban’s ally. In August 2020, Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an Al-Qaida commander who was involved in planning the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, was assassinated in Tehran. Foreign press reports said the hit on Abdullah was carried out by a Mossad unit, at the CIA’s request.

“In many areas, the Islamic Republic balances extremism with pragmatism,” says Prof. David Menashri, a veteran Israeli historian who specializes in Iran. “What’s happening now in Afghanistan is definitely a headache for the regime in Tehran.” In other words, Iranian “wins” from the perceived American weakness balance out Iranian “losses” from the Taliban victory.

But the more important lesson that Israel must draw from this situation is that the age of American involvement in the Middle East is ending. So the collapse of the regime in Kabul, which cost the American taxpayer many trillions, should not come as a shock. Just the cost of the military equipment supplied by the United States to Afghanistan’s army and security forces over the years is estimated at $83 billion. Most of it – unmanned aircraft, brand new armored vehicles, helicopters and ammunition – has now fallen into the Taliban’s hands, and some has already found its way to Iran, to which entire Afghan army units have deserted.

The signing of the Abraham Accords in Washington, in 2020Credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP

“The American strategy that has characterized the last three administrations – of Obama, Trump and now Biden,” says a former senior Israeli intelligence official, “is that all the Middle East has produced for America are huge expenses and coffins, and that nothing good has come from it, so the time has come to end America’s military involvement in the region.”

As with any crisis, the emerging situation within and outside of Afghanistan also presents an opportunity. The Sunni states, as well as Iran, worry that the Taliban will renew its alliance with Al-Qaida, and that together they will return to spreading the idea of global jihad in the form of pre- and post-9/11 terror attacks. This concern and the profound shift in American policy could spur Israel strategically to pursue greater cooperation with Sunni states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Washington will continue to offer these countries diplomatic, economic and intelligence support, but not outright military backing. As the strongest power between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, Israel could leverage this nascent reality and make itself the backbone of military and strategic support for the Sunni world, which is fearful of Iran and of fundamentalist terror that may well rear its head again.

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