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A military strike against Iran – implications for Afghanistan?

June 16, 2012

By Tim Foxley

Summary: A military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would be certain to bring instability and perhaps even major conflict to the Gulf and Middle East.  To Iran’s east, the gradual withdrawal of US forces notwithstanding, Afghanistan offers many reasons and opportunities for Iran to react with displeasure inside that country if Iran was attacked.

Background

I attended a conference last week concerning the political and military implications of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.  Most of the discussion focused upon the implications for the Middle East and the Gulf in the event of an Israeli and/or US strike military attack against Iranian nuclear enrichment facilities.  I just wanted to collect a few thoughts on the implications for Afghanistan in the event of a military confrontation in Iran.

Iran has remained very concerned about the political and security situation in its neighbour Afghanistan and, since 2001, has been very hostile to the international (specifically the US) military and political presence in the country, even despite the intense international effort directed against a force that Iran is bitterly opposed to: the Sunni Pushtun Taliban.   Initial US/Iranian anti-Taliban cooperation after 9/11 soon fell by the wayside, following George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” diversion.  A stable Afghanistan is largely desirable for Iran – but, as with Pakistan, it seeks “stability” on its own terms.

Iran certainly has legitimate political, security and economic interests in Afghanistan interests inside Afghanistan:

But Iran’s approach has had a “dual track” that appears simultaneously to range from benign economic investment to covert support for insurgent groups actively working to bring down the Afghan government.

Iran’s ‘double game’ in Afghanistan

The Iranian president’s outspoken criticism of the US presence during his visit to Kabul embarrassed his Afghan counterpart

The Afghan refugees in Iran are not particularly well-treated – a political “football” that has been in play for many years.

Iran spent considerable effort and resources supporting the anti-Taliban coalition the “Northern Alliance” during the 1990s civil war and will retain many contacts from that period.  See this piece from Ahmed Rashid, twelve years ago.

What steps could Iran take in Afghanistan?

There are clearly lots of military and political variables that would be at play.  I want to side-step most of them, except to note that, for the purposes of this piece, I have assumed that either the US is involved in the initial strike against Iran or gets quickly dragged into the literal and metaphorical military fall-out and there is no international coalition involved.  I have also assumed that the US will not launch military operations from anywhere on Afghan soil, in keeping with the spirit and intention of the most recent US/Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement.   However, perceptions and accusations that the US has or will use Afghanistan as a base for operations against Iran (perhaps for drone/reconnaissance and intelligence gathering) will be widespread – and not just from regional Moslem communities.  This might pitch the Afghan government against the US as Iran ramps up diplomatic (and perhaps, in the margins, security-related) pressure.

Over the next few years, the US will still retain a large political, diplomatic and military presence and commitment to Afghanistan.   Iran therefore currently has three groups to confront or influence in Afghanistan: the US, the Taliban and an Afghan government seen as dependent upon, and supported by, the US.

Thinking of the US and the Afghan government, there will be a range of targets available to an Iranian regime should it take the decision to escalate.  The Taliban do not offer something to retaliate against but might very well form a platform by which the Iranian regime could retaliate against the US.   Iran has spent time cultivating, nurturing or growing assets and relationships in Afghanistan for purposes of intelligence gathering and wielding of political influence in Iran’s favour.  A US military strike into Iran might see many favours being called in.  Most controversially, ISAF has made very direct claims that weapons and IED equipment and technology have been migrating into Afghanistan from Iran and into the hands of Afghan Pushtun insurgents.  The Iranian Republican Guard Corps and the Qods Force within the IRGC have long been suspected of conducting a range of intelligence and subversive activities inside Afghanistan.  Over the years, the accusations have been broadly consistent.  From this:

2007: Iranian Flow Of Weapons Increasing, Officials Say

By Robin Wright

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 3, 2007

Iran has increased arms shipments to both Iraq’sShiite extremists and Afghanistan’s Taliban in recent weeks in an apparent attempt to pressure American and other Western troops operating in its two strategic neighbors, according to senior U.S. and European officials.

To this:

2009: Gen. David Petraeus has accused Iran of still backing Shiite militants in Iraq and giving a “modest level” support — including explosives — to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“Iran continues to fund, train, equip, and give some direction to the residual Shiite militias and extremists elements in Iraq,” he told ABC News.

To this:

2010: The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, says there is “clear evidence” that Iran is providing weapons and training to Taliban fighters in the war-torn country.

U.S. General Stanley McChrystal told reporters in the Afghan capital he understands that as a neighbor, Iran has a natural interest in Afghanistan.

But he says that relationship is at times “inappropriate,” and that coalition forces are working in those instances to limit and stop it in the future.

“I think in many cases the assistance they provide and the interaction is healthy.  There is however, clear evidence of Iranian activity – in some cases providing weaponry and training to the Taliban – that is inappropriate,” McChrystal said.

The Iranian government has repeatedly denied Western claims it is providing support for the insurgency.

 

So the actors and proxies that Iran could potentially bring to bear in Afghanistan likely include the following:

Proxies and allies

  • Hazara groups, religious and political leaders
  • Shia groups, religious and political leaders
  • Local warlords/miitais aligned to either of the above
  • Former Northern Alliance
  • Insurgent groups
  • Afghan members of government/parliament

The range of retaliatory options that these groups might be employed for might include:

Political and military options:

Against the US

  • Capitalise on Afghan Moslem demonstrations against the US/The West
  • Orchestrate demonstrations and protests in Afghan cities and in/around US/NATO bases – the more violent the better
  • Provide IED, weapons and finances to Pushtun insurgent groups, in particular the Taliban
  • Sponsorship of “deniable” attacks against Western political and military targets
  • Conducting of direct terrorist attacks against Western political and military targets

Against the Afghan government

  • Close border with Afghanistan
  • Military reinforcements along the border
  • Generate “friction”/clashes with Afghan border guards
  • Withhold investment and funding  – cancel economic/social/cultural/transport projects
  • Forcibly return Afghan refugees
  • Pressurise Afghan government to further limit (or ideally eject) Western forces – making it clear that Iranian neighbourly support is conditional on Afghanistan limiting its relations with the US

Conclusion

Iran clearly has a range of political and military options it could bring to bear in Afghanistan in the extreme, but hardly impossible, scenario of a military strike against its nuclear facilities.  Much would depend upon the role of the US and the extent of the conflict – a limited 24 hour military strike launched purely from Israel is likely to provoke less Iranian response in Afghanistan than, say, a wider and more drawn-out military intervention that involved the US from the start.

In only the more extreme strike/conflict scenarios would the regime ignore the need to pay attention to calibrating its responses in Afghanistan.  Amidst a basket of political options, Iran looks to have some more questionable resources at its disposal should it decide that the US was to blame.  The biggest concern, from a Western and Afghan government perspective, is likely to be the potential for terrorist and insurgent attacks to be “surged”.   A diminishing of economic assistance, trade and investment will also be painful for Afghanistan and the region in the longer term.

Iranian initiation of violent actions is likely to be covert and designed to be deniable.  They may be directed towards the Afghan regime if Iran perceived that Afghan support – specifically the presence of US military bases – was contributing to the US military effort, although the main threat would more likely be towards US/international  targets (I am unaware of any Israeli political presence in Afghanistan).

Although the main attention of the international community would clearly be focused on the Gulf and the Middle East, Afghanistan might well offer a viable theatre for Iranian assets to strike back.

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