There is a fundamental element of the Afghanistan tragedy which no one, among all the media pontificating on the subject, is discussing.
There are two neighboring countries which either exert, or could exert significant influence on Afghanistan. Pakistan is the obvious one, which has dominated, mostly for ill, the country over the past decades.
But no one is discussing Iran, which has a 600-mile border with Afghanistan and already offers refuge to 3-million Afghan refugees. While Iran is a majority Shia country, it has significant Sunni Arab minorities along its borders. For that reason, Iran has a vested interest in maintaining stability inside Afghanistan. An unstable, dysfunctional country bordering on its restive Sunni provinces bodes ill for Iran’s own security.
Which is why the US hostility toward Iran, in particular Trump’s assassination of IRG commander Qassem Soleimani, looms as yet another tragic lost opportunity in the history of our bilateral relations. The Iranian commander may have been many things we hated. But he was also an eminently pragmatic figure when it came to pursuing Iran’s strategic interests.
Despite a welcome message from incoming hardline Pres. Ebrahim Raisi, Iran must look with trepidation on the sweeping military victory of the Taliban. They are not just Islamist fundamentalists, but violent Jihadis who pour out their wrath not just on non-believers, but also on Muslims who deviate from the true path. Their Deobandi theology is associated with Sunni Islam, which would put it at odds with Iranian Shiism.
On the other hand, Iran has, especially recently, improved its relations with the Taliban. It hosted meetings with them in Tehran last winter. And it has offered a relatively warm reception to the new leaders of the country.
Over the decades, had the US pursued a gradual path of reconciliation with Iran which offered a pragmatic approach, including containment rather than bloodshed when our interests diverged, Biden would not now be facing the massive debacle his withdrawal caused.
In planning for the US exit, he could have negotiated with his Iranian counterparts and encouraged them to exert their own stabilizing efforts inside the country. Soleimani would have been a perfect figure to play such a role.
Instead, we not only murdered him, we continue to be at loggerheads with an increasingly radical regime. Instead of finding common interest, the hardline conservatives who came to power see Biden’s decision as a victory over US imperialism. They see it as offering yet another opportunity to expand their influence at the expense of the US, rather than in coordination with it.
In this sense, the US exit is a tragedy of our own making. One which our own myopia and hubris brought upon ourselves. How many more years, if not decades, will it take before we knock some sense in our heads (or have reality do it for us) and forge a different path?