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Middle East rivals scramble to retain influence as Taliban rises in Afghanistan

As the Taliban sweeps into power, Kabul now has different allies in the Gulf

Borzou Daragahi
International Correspondent
Thursday 19 August 2021 16:28 BST
Taliban inside Afghan Presidential Palace in Kabul

After Afghanistan’s American-backed president Ashraf Ghani fled the Taliban’s offensive in Kabul, he wound up not in a neighbouring country but 1,100 miles away in Dubai, on the Arabian peninsula.

There, in the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates, he has set himself up as a kind of president in exile. Ghani is reportedly holed up in luxury quarters, posting defiant videos on Facebook and allegedly resting easy with $169m he has been accused of stealing from Afghan state coffers, although he says such claims are “baseless”.

“A lot of the Afghan elite view the UAE as a safe haven,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf specialist at Rice University in Texas.

Ghani’s destination shows the cosy relationship between the glittery monarchies of the Gulf and the now-collapsed Kabul government built in the years since the collapse of the Taliban’s previous regime in 2001.

During the late 1990s, Saudi Arabia and the UAE along with Pakistan were the only countries in the world that recognised the Taliban’s short-lived regime. They got burnt with the Taliban harbouring the mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Over the years the Gulf states pivoted toward supporting the Afghan governments of both Ghani and former president Hamid Karzai, whose family was accused of using the perks of power to profit from real estate deals.

Now, with the Taliban in control of the nation of 38 million, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi find themselves on the outside looking in. Meanwhile rivals Iran, which had nearly went to war with the Taliban in 1998, and Qatar, which hosts the Taliban’s leadership, hold far more influence with Kabul’s new masters.

While Saudi Arabia has shuttered its Kabul mission, Iran has boasted that its embassy remains open for business, even under the Taliban.

“Iran, being a neighbour of Afghanistan, has spent years preparing for this present period following the US and Nato exit,” says Giorgio Cafiero, of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington consultancy.

With its forbidding otherworldly terrain, lack of resources and political volatility, landlocked Afghanistan is no hotly contested arena like Syria, Iraq, Libya or Yemen, where world and regional powers such as Iran, Turkey and the Gulf powers vie fiercely for influence.

Afghanistan is a far more important dimension of the India-Pakistan rivalry, with both Islamabad and Delhi for years backing conflicting political and military forces in the country. But Middle East powers have also sought to build up their influence in the country.

Until Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became Riyadh’s de-facto ruler over the last half decade, Saudi Arabia exported its brand of Sunni fundamentalist Islam to the country.

The UAE was the only Arab nation to contribute troops to the Nato-led military effort in Afghanistan.

Qatar has hosted the Taliban political representatives and talks between them the US and Afghan government.

Turkey, which has long contributed to the Nato effort, has also emerged as a major player in Afghanistan, with scores of Turkish companies mostly in the construction sector operating in the country. “We are ready for any kind of cooperation for the tranquillity of the Afghan people and protecting the interests of our country,” Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a television interview on Wednesday. “We welcome the Taliban’s moderate statements.”

For now, Iran appears the biggest winner of the Middle East contest for influence in Afghanistan. It continues to maintain ties with the players in the departed Afghan government, has strong ties to the country’s Shia minority, and has what appears to be a constructive working relationship with the Taliban. Iran also exports up to $2bn annually to Afghanistan, mostly in consumer goods.

Tehran is also gloating over the perceived US failures in Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters stand guard in Herat (AFP/Getty)

“We believe all Afghan groups should work together ... and turn the US withdrawal into a turning point for lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan,” Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi reportedly said in a phone conversation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

But even in Iran, a fierce debate over Afghanistan rages even as the Revolutionary Guard cashes in on years of cultivating Taliban leaders and commanders. The Taliban went on a genocidal campaign against Afghanistan’s Shia during the late 1990s and has a terrible public image in Iran, a majority Shia state.

Over the weekend, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alleged that he was told by security services to keep quiet after he publicly warned of the dangers of the Taliban.

“It would be a great and irreparable mistake to trust a group whose record of wickedness, murder and slaughtering people is clear to the whole world,” Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani, a ranking Iranian cleric has warned.

Gulf watchers say the biggest blow to Saudi and the UAE is the perceived US abandonment of the Kabul government they were enticed by Washington to support.

“The nature and credibility of US security guarantees that were already called into question,” says Ulrichsen. “This is going to enhance that sense of uncertainty about America.”

During the administration of former US president Donald Trump, the Gulf countries pivoted away from Pakistan and toward Narendra Modi’s India, which was a close partner of the former White House and a major supporter of the Ghani government.

Now, along with Delhi, they find themselves with few conduits to Kabul and many concerns that the Taliban will again provide a haven for militant groups that could threaten the Gulf. So far the Gulf states have remained mostly quiet about events transpiring in Afghanistan.

“It’s important for Saudi Arabia and the UAE to have some influence in Afghanistan,” said Kabir Teneja, of the Observer Research Foundation, a Delhi-based think-tank. “While they have not marketed themselves as swashbuckling players in Afghanistan like in Yemen or Libya, they are also very cognisant  of the fact that they have to maintain their own security.”

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