The American-orchestrated death of Major General Qassem Soleimani, the second-most powerful official in Iran, has left analysts wondering how the Shia theocracy will retaliate. Most experts on the Middle East have suggested that Iranian leaders will stick to attacking American assets in Iraq and Syria.
Home to thousands of American soldiers, both Iraq and Syria contain plenty of targets and fall within Iran’s sphere of influence. The Iranian decision to bomb two American military bases in Iraq on January 6 bolstered arguments that Iran would aim its retribution westward.
Despite the news media’s overwhelming focus on Iranian actions in Iraq, some journalists have speculated that Iran will opt to avenge Soleimani’s death by targeting the United States’ national interests in Afghanistan.
As head of the Quds Force, Soleimani oversaw all the most important aspects of Iran’s complex relationship with Afghanistan.
However, these theories ignore a far more direct connection between the deceased Iranian commander and the Central Asian country. As head of the Quds Force, Soleimani oversaw all the most important aspects of Iran’s complex relationship with Afghanistan.
The Quds Force, the most notorious military branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), conducts special operations across the Middle East in the name of furthering the goals of the Iranian Revolution.
Soleimani coordinated the Quds Force’s support for a dizzying number of proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Palestine, the Houthis in Yemen, and a variety of militias in Iraq and Syria. Over the years, the general and the Quds Force became the face of Iran’s decades-long campaign for regional hegemony.
Soleimani pursued a more complicated and varied foreign policy in Afghanistan. After taking the helm of the Quds Force in 1998, he directed his paramilitary to lend its support to the Northern Alliance, an umbrella organization of anti-Taliban Afghan militias. The Afghan collective was also receiving military aid from the U.S., putting Iran on the same side as its longtime foe. Iran, which had almost gone to war with the Taliban that year, saw the militants as a greater threat.
Cooperation between Iran and the U.S. hit its high-water mark when the U.S. started planning the invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attack on September 11, 2001.
Cooperation between Iran and the U.S. hit its high-water mark when the U.S. started planning the invasion of Afghanistan in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attack on September 11, 2001. Soleimani and his American counterparts began sharing intelligence on their mutual enemies in the Central Asian country—but this coordination came to a swift end after U.S. President George W. Bush branded Iran part of an “axis of evil” in January 2002. In the years that followed, Iran and the U.S. found themselves at opposite ends of the punishing battle for control of Afghanistan.
Just as Iran had cooperated with the U.S. in the name of defeating the Taliban in the late 1990s, Iranian officials switched sides to realize a similar goal. With an American-backed government in control of Kabul and American soldiers roaming the Afghan countryside, Iran offered support to Taliban insurgents to needle the U.S. The U.S., on the other hand, sanctioned two officers of the Quds Force in October 2018 for providing the Taliban with financial assistance, intelligence, and military aid.
In addition to seizing an opportunity to bleed the U.S., the Quds Force viewed Afghanistan as an integral component of Iran’s campaign to dominate the Middle East. The paramilitary recruited thousands of Afghan Shias to fight rebels in Syria and uphold the country’s fragile, Iranian-allied government. The Quds Force relied on a network of sympathetic Shia mosques in Afghanistan, which delivered Iran’s message of competitive salaries if Afghans reported for duty. A handful of Afghan officials fear that the Quds Force will later redeploy these recruits to Afghanistan.
As the architect of the IRGC’s extraterritorial operations, Soleimani administered a portfolio that extended far beyond bankrolling the Taliban or sending Afghan militiamen to Syria. The general remained responsible for the entirety of Afghan–Iranian relations. He—not the Iranian Foreign Ministry—acted as the sole Iranian authority on Afghanistan. Soleimani claimed to “control the policy for Iran with respect to Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan” to his American rivals.
In the wake of Soleimani’s death, the future of Afghan–Iranian relations seems far from clear.
In the wake of Soleimani’s death, the future of Afghan–Iranian relations seems far from clear. A few analysts have suggested that the Quds Force may respond by torpedoing ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S., but the evidence for this theory appears scant. The Taliban has even said that clashes between Iran and the U.S. will have no effect on the peace process.
A more interesting angle comes from the ascent of Soleimani’s successor as leader of the Quds Force, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani. Experts on the IRGC have assessed that Ghaani used to run the paramilitary’s operations in Afghanistan. Given Ghaani’s vow of “revenge” and warning that “certain actions will be taken,” the possibility that the general could strike American troops still occupying his old hunting ground remains on the table. The Quds Force likely has operatives in Afghanistan in case Iranian officials need to take fast action against any opponents there.
American special operations forces captured a Quds Force officer supplying the Taliban with weapons to conduct attacks on American soldiers in 2010. Analysts can only guess the extent of the paramilitary’s current presence in Afghanistan. Between Iran’s network of Afghan Shias and ties to the Taliban, though, the Quds Force has no shortage of proxies to deploy at Iran’s behest if the IRGC finds itself lacking manpower there. Ghaani has many tools at his disposal.
Amid the recent disclosure that the U.S. tried to kill a Quds Force officer in Yemen on the day of Soleimani’s death, the conversation on Iranian retaliation will likely stay focused on the Middle East. For its part, Iran can call on far more counterparts in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen than in Afghanistan.
If Iran and the U.S. clash again, Baghdad or Sanaa, not Kabul, would seem the most obvious choice of location. Nonetheless, Soleimani and Ghaani’s history in Afghanistan indicates that the Quds Force will shift its attention there in due time.