By Amitava Mukherjee
Although tiol and intertiol media have described the death of Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the previous Taliban chief, as a major setback to the fundamentalist organization, yet the fact remains that Mansour’s death would hardly affect the fledgling Taliban as it is now being directly patronized by Russia and Iran for containing the growing influence of the Islamic State(IS) fighters in Afghanistan. It may be mentioned here that the IS has solidly dug its heels in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of ngarhar and Kur and it is now trying to extend its influence in the northern part of the country.
Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, has recently said " We and the Taliban have channels of exchanging information… The Taliban interest objectively coincides with ours". Obviously Russia, afraid of a probable IS expansion in Central Asia, is now playing a double game. There are unconfirmed reports that Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the deceased former Taliban chief, had secretly met Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, some time back although the Taliban has denied it. But there is no doubt that Russia and Taliban are now working in unison in Afghanistan. At the same time Moscow is maintaining a bridge with the official Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani. Very recently Russia has supplied 10000 Kalashnikov rifles and a huge number of ammunitions to the Afghan government. It is obvious that Vladimir Putin is determined to secure a strategic depth in future Afghanistan.
Involving major regiol powers like Russia, Chi, Iran and India for a solution to the intractable Afghan problem is a good idea. Pakistan is involved in the imbroglio for a long time although Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President, has broken off his eighteen month long engagement with Pakistan after the last April 19 terrorist attack in Kabul which resulted in death and destruction. Chi has been maintaining a cozy relation with the Taliban for long time. India’s involvement is restricted to a limited scale. But the regiol power that matters most in today’s Afghanistan is Iran.
The IS has vowed to " transform Iran into pools of blood" and has described the country as the " bitterest enemy". Therefore Iran has now decided to secure its 572 mile long border with Afghanistan from Helmand in south to Kunduz in north and create a buffer zone . Although there are now approximately 3000 IS fighters in Afghanistan, yet Iran’s task has been made easier by there factors– about 20 percent of the Afghan population being Hazara Shias, Iran’s long standing cordial relations with several warlords like Ismail Khan, Atta Mohammed Noor and Abdul Rashid Dostum who once belonged to the famous Northern alliance and filly Ashraf Ghani’s ongoing bitter relations with Pakistan.
At this moment it is difficult to say whether Russia and Iran will be able to persuade the Taliban to come to the negotiating table. But in spite of religious difference– the Taliban being a predomintly Sunni organization and Iran a Shia country– Tehran has been maintaining relations with the Taliban for a long time. It will be interesting to know that the family of Mullah Akhtar Mansour is still living in Iran or that Mansour used to visit his family there often.
So long TO and the western alliance have made a major mistake by not taking Iran along for finding a solution to the Afghan imbroglio. Although Iran–Taliban relation has seen some major hiccups with the latter even killing eight Iranian diplomats in Mazar–e–Sharif in 1998, yet it was the same Iran which has very recently supplied money, light machine guns(LMG) and rocket propelled gredes to the Taliban. In 2007 and 2011 TO forces had even intercepted huge cache of Iranian arms which it believed were meant to be supplied to the Taliban.
In addition to the recent agreement between India and Iran for the development of the Chabahar port, the signing of the agreement among India,Iran and Afghanistan over a Transport and Transit Corridor seems to be of very high strategic importance as Iran is likely to clash with the IS over central Asia which the highway will connect. Many strategic experts believe that the IS considers Afghanistan only as a suitable launch pad for their actual operations in central Asia while Iran is trying to become a transit hub of intertiol trade that will connect Asia and Europe through the central Asian states.
Clashes between the Taliban and the IS fighters are now intensifying in Afghanistan. Taliban has committed a 1000 strong special force for this job. Strange is however the non committal approach adopted by Chi whose Silk Road idea and the racially tumultuous Xinjiang province will be severely affected by any IS surge in Central Asia. Similarly affected will be Russia’s North Caucasus region and Moscow’s grand design of Eurasian Economic Union.
It is now time to think beyond the TO and US led initiative for finding a solution to the Afghan problem and regiol powers must take the field with all earnestness. They have reasons to do so. Already Russia and Iran have become large markets of Afghan heroin which claims more than 25000 Russian lives a year. Situation has now come to such a pass that Iran contributes $ 50 million annually to Afghanistan for anti–rcotics purpose.
In order to stave off any IS take over of central Asia Russia is also now increasing its military activity in the region. It has already staged two consecutive military drills in Tajikistan in March and April last.
( Amitava Mukherjee is a senior jourlist and commentator. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)