Everything depends on which way Iran turns and whether the Taliban can control its own country and stop it short from falling into the abyss.
Much has been written about the partners which the Taliban are signing up. But its relations with Iran is the only issue which the whole world is watching with bated breath
The creation of a new government in Kabul has sent ominous signs to the weary West of how seriously it can take the Taliban. Much hope was placed on it including a few members, as ministers, of other groups from the previous government. In the event, it was made up entirely of Taliban figures and not even one woman. Similar to most faint indications that the Taliban have changed in recent weeks, it showed that in fact, really nothing has changed at all. In fact, the only real thing which has changed between the Taliban on the late 90s and the colourful figures brandishing weapons in Kabul today can be summed up with one word: smartphones.
2021 is really a different place than 1996 and so there are some indications that at least the Taliban doesn’t wish to be an international pariah but needs to build strong relations with regional players. For one, it’s entirely penniless and there are already signs of an economic meltdown which would soon make the country an economic basket case, which of course has implications towards internal strife and terrorist groups flourishing. But also just the mere function of being able to govern – something that the Taliban have shown in the 90s it is really not capable of doing – is now more important than ever. One of the statements released which can be accepted on face value is that the Taliban wants cordial relations with the U.S. If the right balance was struck and the Taliban could curb its human rights atrocities, that is always a possibility that Biden will have to mull over, as well as the West’s regional partners. But in the end it will not be gruesome Sharia law which the Taliban carries out which will sway Biden. More who the Taliban are teaming up with. And who they are not. Ultimately the U.S. president is looking for a partner in the region for him to reach his goals. And Iran is top of the list.
Pakistan will always be a big brother as its intelligence division played a huge role in not only supporting the Taliban all these years but also in its final victory. Pakistan fighter jets buzzing the rooftops of the Panjshir valley was a recent message not only to the resistant fighters below but also to the U.S. and its partners. Yet as America and Britain wake up to the Big Brother role of Pakistan and adjust their aid programs to Islamabad, many will look to the relationship that the Taliban is cultivating with China and Russia and asking if Kabul has “fallen” into the hands of the so-called “axis of resistance” or can it still be “saved”?
Could the Taliban have it both ways and be a satellite of China and Russia but still enjoy Uncle Sam’s checkbook to keep its hospitals running and salaries paid of civil servants and military?
The answer is yes, but so much depends on Iran. All eyes are on Tehran for this riddle to be resolved. If the Taliban’s relationship with Iran worsens (due to perhaps poor treatment of Afghanistan’s Shia minorities), the Washington will exploit this for its own objectives. If the Taliban shifted away from Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel could well approach its leaders and build (financial) bridges to help heal its ailing economy while an anti-Iran agenda gains momentum. The Taliban doesn’t have to go to war with Iran to exploit this situation. It simply needs to go from ‘frenemy’ to ‘enemy’ and close its borders.
With the egregious mismanagement of the country, anything in possible in Afghanistan right now as the Taliban comes to terms with money and food shortages from an economy already in a tailspin.
Regionally, super powers’ woes will affect Afghanistan.
Recently both Iran and Saudi Arabia held talks in Baghdad which is signalling a thawing of relations and places the U.S. in an awkward position over its long-running talks with Iran and the JCPOA. If the U.S. walks away from the farcical talks, then this could be seen as a provocation to Iran’s hard-line leaders.
The Taliban has also had meetings with Tehran going back some time and so there are diplomat channels which already exist. Everything now really depends on which way Iran turns and whether the Taliban can control its own country and stop it short from falling into the abyss of its old ways in the 90s. America, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Israel are all waiting patiently and are in no hurry to make snap decisions which they will bitterly regret later on. The Taliban becoming an ally of the West is not far-fetched though. As indeed is for the West to arrange some attacks on Shia minorities in Afghanistan to steer Kabul towards its hegemony.