The nature of the war in Afghanistan has shifted dramatically in recent months. While the US and NATO continue to be actively involved in the country – their strategic objectives having changed very little since the Bush administration launched the war nearly a decade and a half ago – the complexion of the battlefield, and the parties actively engaged in the war, has changed significantly.
The emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan, along with the impending withdrawal of US-NATO troops from the country, has driven the Taliban into a marriage of convenience, if not an outright alliance, with Iran. What seemed like an unfathomable scenario just a few years ago, Shia Iran’s support for the hardline Sunni Taliban has become a reality due to the changing circumstances of the war. Though it may be hard to believe, such an alliance is now a critical element of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan. But its significance is far larger than just shifting the balance of power within the country.
Instead, Afghanistan is now in many ways a proxy conflict between the US and its western and Gulf allies on the one hand, and Iran and certain non-western countries, most notably China, on the other. If the contours of the conflict might not be immediately apparent, that is only because the western media, and all the alleged brainiacs of the corporate think tanks, have failed to present the conflict in its true context. The narrative of Afghanistan, to the extent that it’s discussed at all, continues to be about terrorism and stability, nation-building and “support.” But this is a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of the current war, and the agenda driving it.
And what is this new and dangerous agenda? It is about no less than the future of Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is about the US and its allies clinging to the country, a key foothold in the region, and wanting to find any pretext to maintain their presence. It is about Iran and China positioning themselves in the country for the inevitable moment of US withdrawal and the opening up of Afghanistan’s economy. At the most basic level, it is about access and influence. And, as usual in this part of the world, terrorism and extremism are the most potent weapons.