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The Gulf Prepares for an Afghan Scramble

For the last twenty years, Afghanistan has remained mired in a brutal conflict between the forces of NATO and the internationally recognized Afghan state on one side and the Taliban insurgent militia on the other. As the United States, the most critical external actor within Afghanistan, decided to withdraw its troops, the Taliban movement quickly started to gain momentum in its operations against the Afghan security forces. This was followed by a two-week-long Taliban blitz that resulted in a near-complete takeover of the Afghan state by the Taliban. With Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and dozens of senior officials fleeing the country, the government structure and institutions collapsed in a matter of hours. Apart from the Panjshir Valley, a small mountainous region north of Kabul, the Taliban control virtually all of Afghanistan.

This is the second time that the militant movement has prevailed over all other power holders in Afghanistan leading to a fundamental change in the geopolitical realities of the country in an exceptionally short span of time. These changes will impact Afghanistan’s neighbors immediately, but the consequences of the Taliban takeover will soon reverberate across the Middle East, particularly within the GCC states and Iran, which have played a key role in the conflict there and have a higher stake in its future. Given the differing nature of each GCC state’s relationship with the Taliban and the Afghan government, each is likely to approach the challenge posed by the Taliban takeover in its own distinct way.

Afghanistan has maintained long linkages with the broader Middle East. However, it became increasingly intertwined into the public discourse in the Arab world after the Soviet Union invasion in 1979. The invasion triggered calls for a global jihad against the Soviet invaders that was spearheaded by the Afghan Mujahedeen. Youths from across the Muslim world joined them in this holy war. Since the US “twin pillar” containment policy against the Soviet Union was already in disarray following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, turning a staunch U.S. ally into one of Washington’s most implacable enemies overnight, backing the mujahideen mobilization against the Soviets was the best recourse. This also led to a further strengthening of the relationship between two key American allies, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia financially bankrolled the anti-Soviet resistance, spending allegedly $4 billion each in terms of their funding for the mujahideen while Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) oversaw the logistics and operations on the ground.

The Taliban’s Emergence

With the Soviet’s departure from Afghanistan in 1989, the country was engulfed by infighting and violence between various mujahideen groups. In 1994 this chaos gave way to a movement of Madrassa teachers and students, or “the Taliban,” who rose against Afghanistan’s warlords and, with the support of a population tired and debilitated by civil strife, gradually managed to take over most of the country. The Taliban regime’s legitimacy was only recognized by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Being a staunchly anti-Iran force and a bulwark against any Iranian ingress into Afghanistan, the Taliban government was accepted by both Saudi Kingdom and the UAE. However, none of the other prominent Middle Eastern countries accepted this regime. Egypt, Algeria, and Libya feared that their own Islamic extremists would make common cause with the Taliban, deteriorating their bilateral ties with Pakistan. Meanwhile, Turkey was also staunchly against the Taliban regime, owing to their strict interpretation and implementation of Islamic laws, and Istanbul backed the notorious Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who remained part of the anti-Taliban “Northern Alliance” that mainly comprised of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara warlords and was hold up in the North-Eastern parts of the country.

After the American-led intervention in 2001, a new Afghan national government was installed. This virtually ended the engagement of the Taliban with most entities in the Gulf. However, in 2008, meetings were held between officials in Saudi Arabia and a Taliban representative, Tayyab Agha, who was pressed by the Saudis to engage with Afghan government officials. As the Taliban representative refused to accept the Saudi demands, in 2009 Saudi Arabia expelled him and thus ended its covert relationship with the Taliban. Meanwhile, the UAE and Turkey both worked alongside the NATO mission to boost the capacity of Afghan forces against the Taliban insurgents and also to improve infrastructure in the war-torn country.

Iran, on the other hand, fully exploited this situation and developed a line of communication with the Taliban. This was overseen by the IRGC-Quds Force then-deputy leader Ismail Qaani (the current leader of Iran’s Quds Force), an expert on Afghan affairs. Under this new approach, Iran has not only hosted different leaders of the Taliban but has also provided them with weapons and financial support and pushed its state-owned media to advocate on their behalf. This has clearly cultivated a pro-Iran element within the organization generally considered close to Pakistan.

How to Move Forward

As the U.S. realized the need for political engagement and negotiations with the Taliban, it worked alongside allies to host a political office of the Taliban. The Taliban agreed to open a representative office in Qatar, which, interestingly, had demurred from accepting their regime in the 1990s, as they considered it a neutral state – rather than the UAE or Saudi Arabia, which Taliban officials argued were too close to the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government to be considered a neutral mediator. Eventually, the February 2020 peace deal between the U.S. and Taliban was penned in Qatar, and it was Qatar where the subsequent negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government took place. Lastly, as the Taliban forces took over the whole of Afghanistan, the head of their political office, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, returned to Afghanistan in a plane of the Qatari Air Force. Turkey, a key ally of Qatar, did attempt to position itself as a stakeholder in the security of Afghanistan by offering to secure the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, but the Taliban tersely rejected any such possibility.

As the Taliban now hold ultimate power in Afghanistan, there can be new political opportunities but also constraints for Middle Eastern power brokers. Over the years, the state outlook in both Saudi Arabia and UAE has taken a sharp turn, and the two countries’ leaderships have not only tried to constantly distance themselves from political Islam and Islamist groups, but rather have also emerged as their biggest opponents. The decision by both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to close their embassies in Kabul in the wake of a Taliban takeover signals a disapproval towards the Taliban movement’s ideology and its penchant for Jihad. The Gulf power houses remain also skeptic regarding Taliban’s ability to effectively govern Afghanistan and to keep the country clear of terrorist entities. Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is already being hosted by UAE, ostensibly on “humanitarian grounds.” However, it is quite possible that geopolitical considerations soon compel Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to reach out to Taliban in order to cultivate leverage against Iran. Saudi Arabia in particular can instrumentalize its strategic relationship with Pakistan to develop a channel of communication with the Taliban, as well as its custodianship of the two Holy Mosques.

Meanwhile, Qatar is the only Gulf state that maintains close ties with the Taliban leadership and is now positioned to extract some political and diplomatic rent on the international arena from its links with the movement. Turkey, on the other hand, is still eager to have a bigger role in Afghanistan’s security and stability, as this will help it to become a conduit between NATO and Afghanistan. For Turkey, stability in Afghanistan is critical to put a stop on migration flow towards its borders. Additionally, the Pan-Turkic sentiment within Turkish politics has also meant that Turkey cannot remain oblivious towards Afghanistan, and in particular its Turkic minorities. Turkey also sees Islamabad as a key partner on Afghanistan and its leadership has upped their engagement with Pakistan’s security circles.

In short, the changing realities in Kabul with the demise of the Ghani administration and the rise of the new Taliban administration presents the Gulf states with a perfect opportunity to scramble for this strategic space in the heart of Asia, in order to alter the regional balance of power to their liking.

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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Umer Karim is a visiting fellow at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) London, where he focuses on the evolving political and security environment within South Asia and the Middle East. He is also a doctoral researcher at University of Birmingham where he focuses of Evolution of Saudi Foreign Policy and Middle East International Relations.

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