The U.S. and Iran Are Headed for a New Proxy War in Afghanistan 1

KARACHI—While the United States military and the White House are girding for a confrontation with Iran on the high seas or in Iraq, Afghanistan is an even more likely battleground.

“Iran is positioned in its eastern neighbor to make the Americans suffer as they try to extract themselves.”

U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted last week, “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” The tweet followed the dangerous maneuvers on April 15 by Iranian naval vessels near U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf. The leader of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) promised a “crushing response” to any such action.

The incident and the threats that followed show that even if most of the world’s attention is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a devastating impact on both Iran and the United States, the symptoms of a war in the making grow stronger by the day.

Almost forgotten by the general public is the rocket attack on Camp Taji in Iraq last month that killed two American soldiers and one British serviceman. The camp hosts anti-ISIS coalition troops and NATO personnel. On the ground, the U.S retaliatory strikes against weapons storage sites in Iraq belonging to the pro-Iranian militia Kata’ib Hezbollah kept the war-fever high.

On April 1, Trump said Iran was planning to attack American troops in Iraq.

“Upon information and belief,” he tweeted, echoing FBI legalese, “Iran or its proxies are planning a sneak attack on U.S. troops and/or assets in Iraq. If this happens, Iran will pay a very heavy price, indeed!”

But Americans are even more vulnerable in Afghanistan, and it is likely to be the favored theater for Iran’s proxy attacks on U.S. personnel for several reasons.

One of the first is that the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, General Ismail Qaani, has experience there dating back almost a quarter of a century. 

The Quds Force spearheads Iran’s operations outside its borders, most often by training and organizing militias which are used in combat, covert ops, and terrorist activities to support Iran’s regional objectives. These include the influence, subversion, intimidation, or control of potentially hostile neighbors and the expulsion of outside forces.

For years, the head of the Quds Force was Gen. Qassem Soleimani, known for his high-profile activities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—and his cult of personality inside Iran itself. When he was blown away by an American drone while on a visit to Baghdad in early January, Trump gloated, “He should have been taken out many years ago!”

Qaani was appointed immediately to succeed Soleimani, whom he had served as deputy commander since the late 1990s. But while Soleimani had focused mainly on the countries to the west of Iran, Qaani worked on those to the east, especially Afghanistan.

Today, Qaani is unlikely to miss the opportunity to strike the U.S. at such a vulnerable point. The Americans are currently battling to salvage the peace deal with the Afghan Taliban that would give Trump an exit from the “endless war” there before the U.S. elections in November. But the Taliban already have warned that the peace deal announced in February is near the breaking point. Iran does not have to push too hard to shatter the agreement amid growing violence and bitter differences between the Taliban and the Afghan government. 

Qaani, appointed as the deputy commander of the Quds Force in 1997, worked to back the Northern Alliance in the civil war against the Taliban in the 1990s at a time when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was trying to work with Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud as well. Al Qaeda’s murder of Massoud two days before its September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States turned all these relationships upside down. 

It’s not clear what role Qaani or Soleimani played at a time when Iran was cooperating with Washington to try to stabilize the Afghan situation in late 2001, but after then-President George W. Bush declared in early 2002 that Iran was part of the “Axis of Evil,” diplomatic rapprochement came to an end, and covert action, if it ever subsided, was renewed.

More recently, Qaani made some trips to Afghanistan when the Liwa Fatemiyoun, sometimes known as the Fatemiyoun Brigade or Afghan Hezbollah, were at their height in 2018. Organized four years earlier, they were deployed by Iran to fight in the Syria war supporting Tehran’s ally Bashar al-Assad. Qaani visited Kabul in 2018 and held talks with Afghan government leaders President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, formerly of the Northern Alliance.

Following the signing of the peace accord forged in Doha, Qatar, the U.S. has struggled to push the peace process forward. The U.S. and NATO allies agreed to withdraw all troops within 14 months in return for security assurances by the Taliban that Afghanistan would not be allowed to become a launching pad for global terrorist attacks. The U.S. has to reduce its forces in Afghanistan from about 13,000 to 8,600 within the first 135 days of the accord, but as the New York Times reported last month, that schedule has been complicated by coronavirus and quarantine concerns.

On its face, the Quds Force-Taliban relationship is complicated given Iran’s previous backing for the Northern Alliance, but that was a long time ago, and ever since 9/11 Afghanistan has seen changing client and proxy relationships, some of them public, some not.

“An open alliance between Iran and the Taliban would surely be viewed as a betrayal by many Afghans, even if shifting alliances is the nature of Afghanistan,” Sam Hendricks of the Lowy Institute in Sydney told The Daily Beast.

“On the whole,” Hendricks said, “Iran has been remarkably restrained in its dealings in Afghanistan since 2001—and its own betrayal by the U.S. after Iranian support in defeating the Taliban and convening the Bonn process [to build a stable government], soon after which it was labeled part of the Axis of Evil.”

Now, said Hendricks, Iran “seems to have an opportunity to strike the U.S. at a very vulnerable point.” 

Among Qaani’s tools are the thousands of fighters from the battle hardened Liwa Fatemiyoun, made up mainly of members of Afghanistan’s Shi’ite Hazara minority, in addition to any tacit or covert cooperation with the Taliban themselves.

More than in Iraq, more than in the waters of the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, Iran is positioned in its eastern neighbor to make the Americans suffer as they try to extract themselves. The only real question is whether Iran wants them out of Afghanistan sooner or later.