Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and Russia have tried to fill the military and diplomatic void opening up in Afghanistan following the departure of US forces and military advances by the Taliban.
In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met Taliban negotiators to discuss their intentions towards the country and obtained a joint statement saying the Taliban does not support attacks on civilians, schools, mosques and hospitals and want a negotiated settlement on the future of Afghanistan.
The Taliban side was led by Abbas Stanekzai, a senior negotiator and head of the group’s political bureau in Qatar, while the Afghan government side was led by former vice president Yunus Qanooni.
Three other Afghan delegations were in Tehran at the same time. The value of the joint statement promising further negotiations is questionable, but Tehran’s diplomatic activism has underscored fears in Iran of an overflow created by a protracted civil war on its long border.
Estimates suggest that a million Afghans will cross the border to avoid fighting or the Taliban regime. Iranian social media showed Afghan forces were deserting two of the three customs offices along the border at Islam-Qata and Farah. With around 700 km of its border with Afghanistan now in Taliban hands, Iran has no choice but to take an active interest in it.
It is estimated that Iran already hosts 780,000 registered Afghan refugees and that between 2.1 and 2.5 million undocumented Afghans live in Iran.
Russia has asked for assurances that the Taliban will not allow Afghanistan’s northern borders to be used as a base for attacks on former Soviet republics.
In a move designed in part to please the United States but also to advance Ankara’s personal interests, Turkey has conditionally offered Turkish troops for a NATO-supervised project to protect Kabul International Airport. . President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has offered to provide Turkish troops as part of an unlikely possible alliance with Hungary.
Turkey previously kept the airport, but fears a new wave of migration and might see a military role as a way back into Washington’s good books.
The Taliban delegation which visited Iran on Tuesday and Wednesday at Tehran’s invitation, alongside three other Afghan delegations, was told by Zarif that it may have to make difficult decisions. Courage in peace was more important than courage in war, he said, arguing that courage is about sacrificing maximalist demands and listening to the other side.
Zarif also said that continued conflict between the government and the Taliban would have “unfavorable” consequences for Afghanistan, and a return to intra-Afghan negotiations was the “best solution”. Iran has not attended the stalled Doha negotiations for more than two years.
A heated debate is underway in Iran on how to approach the Taliban. Some analysts argue that the massive migration from Afghanistan caused by a Taliban insurgency could help the Iranian economy and that Iran should not oppose a Taliban takeover.
Saeed Laylaz, a prominent reformist economist and adviser to previous governments, said: “Iran is facing a population crisis and I believe that the best, closest and cheapest way to overcome this population crisis is is to accept emigration from Afghanistan. Stability in Afghanistan is important for national security, as it contributes to the aging crisis and to the Iranian economy.
“The Taliban could not have survived for so long without real political support, and they could now serve Iran’s regional diplomatic interests. The Taliban are no longer the Taliban of the past, they also understood that we have to interact with the world, we have to cooperate with the countries in the region.
The director general of the West Asia office at the Iranian foreign ministry, Rasoul Mousavi, was also sympathetic but more reserved. “The Taliban are from the Afghan people,” Mousavi said. “They are not separate from traditional Afghan society, and they have always been a part of it. In addition, they have military might. The United States has lost the war and can no longer conduct a military operation against the Taliban.