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How Instability in Afghanistan Endangers the Gulf

Since 1979, the Gulf states have tended to view Afghanistan as a distant country of only limited importance to their interests. Relatively few Afghans work in the GCC states, other than the UAE which has about 150,000 resident Afghans. A small but not insignificant number of rich Afghan oligarchs and warlords have mansions in Dubai. Of everyday Afghans, most who have immigrated for work abroad tend to be concentrated in Iran and Pakistan. Afghans fleeing the country have sought refuge in Europe, although significant numbers found themselves stranded in Turkey when European governments slammed the gates shut. Only Iran borders on that unhappy country, and has historically demonstrated a great interest in its fate.

You Break It, You Buy It

To paraphrase Colin Powell, the Gulf states should remember the “Pottery Barn Rule”: “you break it, you buy it” (in essence, an actor that creates a problem is responsible for the political and economic cost of rectifying that problem). They should be focused intently on the short-term and medium-term consequences of the abrupt unilateral and uncoordinated American withdrawal. In all likelihood, internal fighting will intensify, creating a humanitarian catastrophe that could well rival the worst that has happened in Yemen. Unlike Yemen, which rarely merits the front page of the Washington Post, Americans and Europeans have a great deal invested in Afghanistan; Europe will bear the brunt of a new wave of refugees, and the chaos will appear regularly in the news.

Unfortunately, the Taliban do not appear to have learned from 9/11. They are currently engaged in wholesale slaughter of innocents, and there has been no indication that they have in any way broken with their terrorist allies. In fact, a recent UN Monitoring report asserts that the Taliban continue to back al-Qaeda, despite wholly unbelievable Taliban protests to the contrary. Yemen’s instability, terrible as it is, has been contained; by contrast, the instability in Afghanistan could well spill over into the Gulf. The Gulf states need to worry and to focus on how they will mitigate regional instability and the threats to their reputation. It behooves them to work with NATO and the United States to ensure that support to the legitimate government and security forces of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan continues. The GCC states should work as hard to prevent collapse and ensure stability in Afghanistan as they did helping Afghans throw off the Soviet yoke in the 1980s.

Financing Proxies

The GCC states have an imperative to “buy” Afghanistan because they played an outsized role in “breaking” the country in the first place. While only Iran borders that unhappy country with direct historical, political, and economic ties, the other Gulf states should not ignore the fact that they have played a major role in determining the fate of Afghanistan for decades. They provided the financial wherewithal for the US to support the mujahideen guerrillas against the Soviets from 1980 until the latter withdrew in 1989. Gulf money then funded the ensuing competition for power between the warlords after the Soviets withdrew. Finally, disappointed with the warlords, Afghanistan’s Gulf patrons mostly switched their support to Pakistan and its proxies, the pre-2001 Taliban. Thousands of Gulf Arabs flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets with both private and official support. When the Soviets withdrew, their own countries often refused to let the Gulf Arab fighters go home, fearing they had been infected with “jihadist” ideology and represented a threat to government stability. Consequently, many settled permanently in Afghanistan, often joining the Taliban and in many cases recruited by newly arriving Islamist extremist organizations such as al-Qaeda. The flow of Gulf money that accompanied them guaranteed that the cash-strapped Taliban would protect them and not interfere with their activities.

Saudi Arabia and the GCC Involved from the Beginning

A report sponsored by the Norwegian foreign ministry chronicles the long history of Saudi intervention in Afghan affairs. Riyadh began its large-scale involvement in 1980 when it became the principal financial supporter of “Operation Cyclone”, the American program to arm Afghan mujahideen guerrillas against occupying Soviet forces. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the US closed down “Operation Cyclone” and walked away, but Saudi Arabia continued to support some mujahideen leaders, most notoriously Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a particularly brutal and treacherous warlord once dubbed “the Butcher of Kabul.” Only after Hekmatyar praised Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and condemned Saudi Arabia for calling in American troops did Riyadh drop him and switch its support to Pakistan, in effect aligning itself with the Taliban – Pakistan’s creature. After the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, Saudi Arabia joined Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates as the only countries in the world to recognize the “Islamic Emirate”, thus recognizing the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government and providing it with money and equipment. Saudi Arabia continued to support the Taliban regime until Afghan-based Gulf Arab jihadists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.

Other GCC states, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait, also contributed to Operation Cyclone. A Los Angeles Times investigative report indicated that the UAE failed to stop large-scale financing for the Taliban and al-Qaida in the years leading up to 9/11. The UAE did not break diplomatic ties with the Taliban until September 23, 2001, when the latter refused a UN Security Council demand they surrender Osama bin Laden for the 9/11 attacks. In 2017, the Taliban apparently repaid the UAE’s support by killing five Emirati doctors and severely wounding the Emirati Ambassador in a bombing in Kandahar; the Taliban later denied involvement.

While Qatar never recognized the Taliban, it maintained good relations until it broke with them after 9/11. Today, largely at the request of the United States, Qatar accepted a Taliban quasi-Embassy and hosted bilateral talks that led to the agreement in February 2020 to withdraw U.S. troops. If the agreement collapses after the U.S. withdrawal concludes, Qatar will have part of the blame as well.

Iran’s Love-Hate Relationship With the Taliban

Iran has an ancient and tortured history with Afghanistan. In the early 18th century, Afghan Pushtun leader Azad Khan Afghan even briefly conquered part of Iran under the Safavid Dynasty. In the 20th century, the two states formally recognized each other in 1921, but maintained rocky relations over disputed borders and water rights. During the Soviet occupation, many Afghan Hazara, a Shia minority now under attack by the Sunni Taliban, sided with the communist government against the mujahedeen, apparently with tacit encouragement from revolutionary Tehran. During this time, more than one million Afghan refugees fled to Iran.

In 1998, Iran almost went to war with the Taliban after the group attacked the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e Sharif, killing nine diplomats, and massacred Hazaras. Despite its historical animosity towards the United States, Iran supported the U.S. invasion in 2001 and actively facilitated the U.S. establishment of Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban government. Iranian diplomats dragged mujahideen warlords to the first peace conference in Berlin and expelled Gulbuddin Hekmatyar from Iran for his anti-American activities.

For reasons that still perplex the author, in 2002, President George W. Bush repaid this cooperation by branding Iran as part of the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address. Inevitably, Tehran reconciled with the Taliban. Fearing that the attack on Iraq in 2003 would be followed by an American attack on Iran, Tehran began to provide military equipment to the Taliban. More incidents such as the major failure of the Karzai administration to control anti-Iranian and anti-Hazara terrorism, led Tehran to seek cooperation from the Taliban.

Then came the emergence of the brutally anti-Shia Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K) in 2015, a group that has repeatedly attacked Hazaras. As Iran lost confidence in the Afghan government’s ability to defeat IS-K, it turned to the Taliban. For a time, the Taliban cultivated better relations with the Hazara, a position that led to continued Iranian support. Now, however, attacks against Hazara have multiplied, including a particularly horrific bombing of a girl’s elementary school in a Shia district of Kabul left more than 80 dead schoolgirls. The Taliban have denied responsibility and blamed unnamed Islamists, but it is worth observing that the attack fits in with the Taliban’s principles and its modus operandi; it remains to be seen how Tehran will react, if at all.

How Will U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan Affect the Gulf

Although GCC states fear any American withdrawal from the region, departing Afghanistan has not raised the same level of angst as would a departure from Iraq. Instead, the GCC states regard Afghanistan and its problems as more distant. History suggests they should not get too comfortable. While the Taliban have issued vague assurances about “respect for women’s rights in an Islamic context” at the Doha negotiations, the group’s actions on the ground in Afghanistan point to a quick return to the devastating policies of 1996-2001 – in all likelihood, the closing of women’s schools, public floggings and executions, and attacks on ethnic minorities, especially the Shia Hazara. Even before the ink was dry on the February 2020 peace agreement, the Taliban began conducting a systematic campaign assassinating prominent women and attacking schools and universities with special attention to killing Hazaras. Nor have there been any concrete indications that the Taliban will deny sanctuary and support to jihadist organizations such as ISIL, Islamic State-Khorasan or al-Qaeda. The Taliban survived financially by hosting them in the past and will in all likelihood do so in the future. This last should put paid to the fantastic delusion that they will moderate (whatever “moderate” means to a Talib) in order to ensure humanitarian and from the West.

To be clear, the rest of Afghanistan will fight back tooth-and-nail against Taliban supremacy with whatever means are at its disposal, despite the loss of American and NATO combat support. How that will develop depends to a great degree on whether American and NATO material, out-of-country training, and intelligence support to the Afghan Army and Security Forces continues. Pakistan will continue to support the Taliban, probably more openly with the Americans gone.

Fortunately, the Afghan forces have proven they can fight, although they would have been more effective if the U.S. had not hindered them by making them dependent on U.S. airstrikes for combat support and U.S. contractors for logistics support. Moreover, with the Americans gone, logic suggests that the Taliban will lose much of their appeal as “freedom fighters” against a foreign occupier, leveling the morale ground. Keeping the Afghan forces intact is more likely to lead to a final negotiated settlement, and a more coherent two-sided civil war will highlight the Taliban’s association with jihadists.

However, if those forces collapse for lack of support, Afghanistan will revert to the same free-for-all chaos that prevailed when Pakistan injected the Taliban into the ongoing civil war in 1994. Afghanistan will degenerate into another sectarian and ethnic civil war between the largely Pashtun Taliban and various factions of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, each under their own warlords. Each of these ethnic factions will seek and probably receive support from their ethnic and religious brethren across the border in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Iran. Large-scale ethnic cleansing will certainly ensue as the different sectarian and ethnic factions seek to clear their territory of potential fifth columnists. A tsunami of refugees will pour into neighboring countries, destabilizing the entire region. In the absence of meaningful action to prevent it, fighters and money will pour in from the Gulf, both to help the Taliban and to recreate the infrastructure that brought us 9/11. World media will again highlight the fact that the jihadists receive most of their money from the Gulf. Terror groups will attract dissatisfied youth from all over the world, including the Gulf, who will ultimately pose a serious, if not existential, threat to their homelands.

What Can Gulf Countries Do to Help?

The GCC States and Iran must recognize that keeping the legitimate government of Afghanistan functional and solvent, and keeping its security forces deployed, has the highest priority. The Ghani administration is an Islamic government that, for all its flaws and weaknesses, provides hope for a better future to the more than 60% of the population below the age of 25. It is the only government in Afghanistan that has the will to provide educational opportunities for all its people, especially for women. This includes putting pressure on the United States and the rest of NATO to continue their support. The GCC states must bring political and economic pressure on Pakistan to stop assistance to the Taliban and to end their undeclared spring offensive. Pakistan needs GCC assistance simply to keep its head above water, perhaps a more potent source of pressure than American requests and blandishments.

For their part, the GCC states need to put as much distance between themselves and the Taliban as possible. GCC states must take action to ensure that GCC citizens do not provide financial assistance to the Taliban – or, worse, travel to Afghanistan to join them. GCC states have already taken significant steps to prevent financial support for other terrorist organizations; they have the mechanisms in place to apply the same rules to the Taliban. There is little doubt that the Taliban will continue to oppress minorities and women in areas that it controls. It is more and more likely that the International Criminal Court will seek indictments against Taliban leaders; the ICC has already begun investigations against Israel and Hamas, entities that have far, far less to answer for than the Taliban. Those investigations will inevitably lead to tracking Taliban financial support.

Of the six GCC states, this trend poses a special challenge to Qatar, which has for the last decade hosted a Taliban quasi-diplomatic mission and many Taliban officials and their families at the request of the United States Government. While negotiations were ongoing, this arrangement served U.S. interests, as it provided a venue for negotiations, such as the 2014 prisoner exchange that freed U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity. Once the U.S. completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan, however, it will have little incentive to continue these negotiations. As the media begin to report fresh Taliban atrocities or reveal the presence of more and more jihadists operating in Afghanistan under Taliban cover and protection, pressure will grow to declare them terrorists and to sanction their leadership once more.

As the terrible consequences of the February 2020 “peace deal” become clearer, Qatar’s leadership will be, fairly or otherwise, tarred with having made the agreement possible. It behooves the Government of Qatar to at least restrict the activities of the Taliban officials in the country, if not expel them entirely, even if their presence was a U.S. request. Some enterprising press photographers will sooner or later take a picture of the children of Taliban leaders being chauffeured to some posh private school in Qatar and dining in five-star restaurants all the while their fighters shutter schools in Afghanistan and kill young girls seeking an education. Therefore, Doha should do more to identify itself with the Ghani administration. Recently, NATO asked Qatar to provide facilities for a NATO training camp for Afghan armed forces and police. Doha should agree to this cheerfully and promptly.

The Gulf states cannot escape their role and responsibility for what happens in Afghanistan. Nor can they blithely assume that they can isolate themselves from the consequences of a second collapse there. The region will also run a serious reputational risk with the United States, which under the Biden administration is already searching for a reason to pull up stakes entirely.

On the other hand, the Gulf could gain from a robust response to U.S. withdrawal. President Biden received justified criticism from many corners of the United States for making the arbitrary decision to withdraw and hoping that the best. Leaders like Saudi Arabia’s MbS and the UAE’s MbZ are already on thin ice with Biden. By helping the Afghan government remain stable, they could both avert a humanitarian disaster and buy themselves valuable goodwill with the Biden administration. The correct decision could not be more obvious.


Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

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Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum. Previously he held positions as Political Advisor to the Commander in Chief, Central Command; Deputy Chief of Mission and Political officer in Amman; Charge D’affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi; Economic Counselor in Damascus; and U.S. Ambassador to the State of Qatar. In a career spanning almost 36 years, he also has served in diplomatic positions in Beirut, Managua, Dharan and Abu Dhabi, as well as in the Department of State. During that period, he earned four Superior Honor Awards. After retirement Ambassador Theros served as President of the U.S. Qatar Business Council in 2000-2017.

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