The sixteen-year war in Afghanistan vexes American foreign policymakers. Is the United States-led coalition winning? Should force levels increase? Complicating Afghanistan’s answers are its many strategic players: a fractious governing coalition, Taliban insurgents, the Islamic State, Pakistan, India, and Iran.
Iran’s growing role in today’s conflict resembles the American strategy in 1980s Afghanistan. The CIA supported the Afghan mujahideen against a Soviet-backed government just as Iran, likely through its powerful Revolutionary Guards, now supports the Taliban against an American-backed government. American interest is to avoid another episode of costly intervention. To do so requires understanding the contours of the Afghan conflict and calibrating strategy accordingly.
American influence in Afghanistan threatens Iran, which fears a neighboring state allied with one of its rivals. Iran looks to sponsor the Taliban in Afghanistan just as it sponsors loyal governments and armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Because it shares a long border with Afghanistan, Iran is also uniquely positioned to provide sanctuary to the Taliban. International rivalry, such as that between Iran and the United States is a primary determinant of third-party intervention in civil conflict. Unless the two states reach an unlikely detente, such intervention will persist and further draw out an already protracted conflict.
The second challenge of Iranian support for the Afghan Taliban derives from management, rather than geopolitics. When third parties intervene through sponsoring a non-state actor, principal-agent problems result. Iran cannot guarantee that the Afghan Taliban will represent Iranian interests, as Taliban fighters could use Iranian support to settle personal scores or engage in banditry instead of fighting Iranian targets. Furthermore, Iran’s support of a fragmented Taliban will further delay the resolution of the conflict.
Even without active intervention by Iran or Pakistan, the Afghan conflict would prove knotty. State control is incomplete, infrastructure tenuous, and terrain impassable in many parts of the country. Underdevelopment and high poverty leads farmers to illicit poppy cultivation, supplying revenue for the Taliban. In turn, a revenue-rich Taliban increases its recruitment. Criminal profiteering allows the Taliban to grow its capacity, assert control over territory, and develop a more stable hierarchical organization resistant to counterinsurgency.
Counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan, particularly efforts to curtail poppy cultivation, have been notoriously ineffective. Winning the hearts and minds of the local population matters in addition to undercutting insurgent finances. Yet hearts and minds efforts fall short so long as coalition forces continue to inflict civilian casualties. Increased civilian casualties in Afghanistan correspond with a rise in future insurgent attacks, most likely due to vengeful civilians withholding intelligence or passing intelligence directly to insurgents.
The Taliban is not the only armed insurgency in Afghanistan. The Islamic State and the Haqqani Network carry out deadly terrorist attacks on civilian and government targets. Such attacks serve to provoke and weaken the Afghan government while making the peace process even more remote.
Neither peace at the negotiating table nor victory through arms appear possible in the multilayered Afghan conflict. The United States should account for these severe strategic handicaps, as well as domestic aversion to soldiers dying in foreign wars, before entertaining any escalation of force.