By supporting Saudi Arabia’s operation against the Houthi, a Yemeni Shiite rebel group backed by Iran, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani risks dragging his troubled country into a Sunni-Shiite proxy war. If Afghanistan fails to strike a balance between its relations with and Iran, it runs the risk of polarizing its people and getting caught in the crosshairs of a regional power struggle. But if Kabul plays its cards right, Afghanistan’s historically ambivalent role in opposing spheres of influence could also be used to maintain balance of power in the region.
While Afghanistan’s relations with the Saudis have been better than ever under Ghani’s leadership, the Afghan leader’s 19-20 April trip to Tehran indicated that Kabul is also seeking to balance its relations with its western neighbour. During this week’s trip, Ghani and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, announced increased cooperation in trade, technology and culture. The two leaders also agreed to share intelligence on terrorism and drug trafficking.
As a former chessboard in the 19th-century “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires, the struggle to strike a balance between rival powers is not new for Afghanistan. The country was also caught between the United States and Russia during the Cold War, and more recently between Pakistan and India. To an extent, it has also borne the effects of rivalry.
But as it struggles to emerge from its own decades of war, the Riyadh-Tehran matchup could prove devastating for Afghanistan. Even if the current proxy war in Yemen remains within that country’s borders, the same sectarian tensions could erupt in , where both Saudi Arabia and Iran wield significant influence over opposing groups of tribal and religious leaders.
Saudi Arabia has a positive image in the minds of many Afghans, who see the country as the holy land that houses the two major Muslim sacred sites in Mecca and Medina. The Saudis also helped Afghan mujahideen in the fight against Soviet troops. Saudi Arabia was also one of the three nations to formally recognize the Taliban regime before it was toppled in 2001.
The influence that Riyadh wields over active anti-government groups including the Taliban, Hezbi Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Haqqani network - as well as other former mujahideen factions that are now part of the Kabul government - makes the kingdom instrumental to any peace deal that could be struck with insurgent groups.
President Ghani has placed a great deal of hope in his administration’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Ghani has travelled to the Muslim holy land twice since becoming president last September and publicly asked the Saudi monarch to use his influence with Pakistan to kick-start peace talks between Kabul, Islamabad and the insurgent groups.
Kabul’s tacit approval of Operation Decisive Storm on 1 April, which came less than a week after warplanes from Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies began striking against the Houthis in Yemen, should not come as a surprise. In return for backing Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in , Ghani hopes to see reciprocal support by the kingdom in ongoing peace efforts with the Taliban.
Like Saudi Arabia, Iran has used the decades of turmoil in Afghanistan to make inroads among local political and military leaders. The country wields considerable , which make up around 20% of the Afghan population. Landlocked Afghanistan also shares a 900 kilometre-long border with Iran, key for trade and access to trans-boundary water sources. Most importantly, Tehran could use its influence over the 3 million Afghan refugees living in Iran to put pressure on Kabul, or even destabilize the country by expelling the migrants.
Despite the presence of tens of thousands of US and other NATO troops in Afghanistan, Kabul-Tehran relations have been at a historic high in the past 13 years. The office for former President Hamid Karzai was notorious for regularly receiving “bags of cash” or “ghost money” from both the CIA and Tehran. At one point during Karzai’s tenure, Kabul was even seen as a potential arbiter between Washington and Tehran.
Part of Iran’s tolerance of Afghanistan’s dual-track diplomacy stems from Tehran’s recognition of regional realities. An unstable Afghanistan could be used by Iran’s enemies to create insecurity both along its borders and inside its territories. For Tehran, drug trafficking and the Islamic State’s expansion into central Asia are issues that can only be addressed through cross-border collaboration with Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia could also use elements inside Afghanistan to take the war to , the same way the Houthi rebels have warned to carry out attacks inside the kingdom.
Many commentators warned that Riyadh might pressure Kabul to send a small contingent of troops once the expected ground offensive by the Arab coalition begins, a scenario that could thrust Afghanistan into a new kind of armed conflict within the country and in the region.
Any kind of surge in violence within Afghanistan, supported by regional countries, could jeopardize the situation for thousands of US forces stationed in the country. The US, which provides intelligence and logistics support in the current Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes in Yemen, has enough clout over Riyadh to dissuade it from involving Afghanistan in any military alliances.
As the escalates and pressures Muslim countries to take sides, it is imperative that Afghanistan maintains its reinvigorated relations with Saudi Arabia and, at the same time, preserves its strategic ties with Iran. Walking that tightrope will prove challenging for the new Kabul leadership, but it may be the only peaceful way to prevent Afghanistan’s over-engagement in this new Great Game.