The all but guaranteed American withdrawal from Afghanistan may seem far from the minds of the Middle East’s power-brokers, who find themselves confronting one of the worst pandemics in history. Still, the coronavirus, like the American presence in the conflict-plagued Central Asian country, will only last so long. As the Western soldiers who entered Afghanistan in 2001 begin to depart in the coming months and years, the Middle Eastern regional powers that once dominated the fractious politics of Kabul will have an opportunity to reassert their influence.
Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have long cooperated with and worked against one another in the best-known battlefields of the Middle East, from Iraq and Palestine to Syria and Yemen. All four countries—whose ties to the United States range from alliances in the cases of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to a long-running cold war in the case of Iran—also hope to reestablish their competing spheres of influence in Afghanistan. Now, they can.
Despite their relationship with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the UAE have tried to hedge their bets by nurturing ties to the Taliban.
Despite their relationship with the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the UAE have tried to hedge their bets by nurturing ties to the Taliban, American troops’ perennial foe in Afghanistan. In the 1990s, the pair of regional powers became two of only three countries to recognize the Taliban’s fledgling government, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s facilitation of al-Qaeda’s attacks against the U.S. and the resultant American invasion of the insurgents’ rump state forced Saudi Arabia and the UAE to hide this alliance, but their Taliban connections still prove useful.
Leaders in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh drew on their contacts within the Taliban to jumpstart peace talks between the militants and the U.S. in 2018 and 2019. Though these efforts only yielded limited results because of the Taliban’s initial reluctance to engage with its American counterparts, the two regional powers’ ability to call on the Taliban’s leaders demonstrated Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s ongoing influence and interest in Afghanistan and the outcome of its civil war.
The longevity of Emirati and Saudi involvement in Afghanistan notwithstanding, their attempt to insert themselves into the Afghan peace process paled in comparison to Qatar’s. In 2013, Qatari officials allowed the Taliban to open an office in Doha with the tacit consent of U.S. President Barack Obama. This Taliban presence played a decisive role in peace talks between the militants and American diplomats. Earlier this year, negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban in Doha led to the outline of a peace treaty that would see all American and other Western soldiers in Afghanistan leave within the next few years.
Iran viewed the American presence in Afghanistan as a unique opportunity to needle its adversary.
While Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE leveraged their contacts in Afghanistan to impress the U.S. and strengthen their ties to it, Iran chose a different path. As a longtime American foe in the Greater Middle East, Iran viewed the American presence in Afghanistan as a unique opportunity to needle its adversary. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has armed the Taliban for years to increase casualties among American troops and pressure the U.S. to withdraw.
In recent years, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have conducted most of their interactions with Afghanistan, and the Taliban in particular, with an eye toward the U.S. They have used their ties to the Central Asian country to assist the superpower or hinder it, depending on the nature of their relationship with officials in Washington. Now that American policymakers have confirmed their plans to depart Afghanistan, the target of Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE’s political warfare in the country seems all too likely to switch from the U.S. to one another.
In many ways, this shift has already started. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have imposed a blockade on Qatar since 2016, issued a secret threat to the U.S. that they would move to boycott peace talks with the Taliban if American diplomats held them in Doha. The peace process went ahead anyway, but these types of battles over the future of Afghanistan look set to continue.
Several experts have warned of the potential for Iran and Saudi Arabia to export their proxy wars to Afghanistan. Without the U.S. to act as a guarantor of stability and uphold the fragile state in Kabul, little will stop the two foes from preparing for another confrontation in the Central Asian country. In 2017, Iran and Saudi Arabia traded accusations of support for the Taliban—a bizarre, paradoxical war of words in that both countries have funded the militants while denying charges that they back the Taliban. Afghanistan offers fertile ground for this complex conflict.
Experts have warned of the potential for Iran and Saudi Arabia to export their proxy wars to Afghanistan.
As Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE ready themselves for a new stage of competition, they will have plenty of rivals. Bahrain and Kuwait, known to keep a lower profile than their larger neighbors, have also allowed money to flow to the Taliban. Oman, meanwhile, employed its own diplomatic prowess to play a role in the Afghan peace process. Every regional power in the Middle East could try to build a sphere of influence in Afghanistan now.
Officials in Islamabad, who have long seen Afghanistan’s future as Pakistan’s exclusive domain, will likely have final say on what direction the battered Central Asian country takes. Even Iran and the UAE’s resourceful intelligence agencies lack the impressive reach of the Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani government agency that manages interactions with Afghanistan.
Whatever Pakistan opts to do in the next few years, the American withdrawal from Afghanistan will result in a power vacuum that Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE will struggle to fill. Even if the peace treaty between the Taliban and the U.S. gives Afghanistan a respite from decades of civil war, the historical rivalry between the Middle East’s regional powers portends a long road ahead for a country that has often served as a battlefield for foreign interests.