Two developments, currently underway, are going to shape the geopolitical architecture of Asia for many decades to come, in case the conflict between the United States and Iran escalates further and when the United States and the Taliban in Afghanistan ink a peace deal. These developments will produce, mutually exclusive, consequences for Afghanistan but not for India. In case US-Iran conflict does grow further, Afghanistan will become, inevitably, the center of the conflict. Whereas, if the conflict is deescalated and, in addition, a peace deal is inked with the Taliban, peace might return to Afghanistan, but the conflict in Kashmir will further exacerbate as a result of that deal. This article discusses the two developments and its consequences, in terms of energy security, major powers’ rivalry, and with a deeper and detailed focus on implications of each one of these developments for Afghanistan and India.
Energy security Factor
Iran is well aware that it cannot win a military confrontation with the United States through direct engagement of its military forces. It is equally aware, ironically, that by targeting energy facilities in the region, and using its proxy groups against American interests, the Islamic regime will inflict consequential blows to the current world order led by the US. Iran has threatened its neighbors, including oil and gas rich countries in the Persian Gulf that they will become targets for Iran’s military forces if their territories are used by the United States against Iran. Major oil and gas producing countries in the Gulf region host American military bases. Iran’s location right on the Strait of Hormuz gives an unparalleled advantage to Iran’s military forces to effectively block the flow of 20 percent Oil and 25 percent Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) of the world. Chances for military confrontation between the U.S. and Iran went up after the U.S. military assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force of Iran during the first week of 2020. Iran and the United States might shift their potential conflict, which otherwise could be fought in the Persian Gulf region, to Afghanistan, taking practicality and efficiency into consideration.
Consequences of US-Iran Military Confrontation
The US is bound to fall short in achieving its goal to refocus its strategic attention to the Asia-pacific region, due to its potentially deeper engagement in the Middle East crisis. United States’ strategic allies in the region, India, Japan, and South Korea, to name a few, whose economies are heavily dependent on imports of oil and gas from the Middle East will suffer. Result of which will be dwindling in the capability of these economies to shoulder responsibilities for the U.S. to maintain the current world order. If a war happens, influx of migrants from these and other regional countries, many of which are amongst the most populated countries in the world, will negatively affect the socio-economic wellbeing of countries that are members in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). India’s bill for oil imports will go up by $1.5 billion annually if there is a single dollar increase in the price of crude oil. The country imports most of its oil from Saudi Arabia and its cooking gas from Iraq.
The little hope that has grown over the last one year for building the Trans Caspian Gas Pipelines (TCGP) from Turkmenistan to Europe will wane. The pipeline route, throughout Azerbaijan and Georgia will become insecure. Europe will become more dependent on Russian gas pipelines, which will be a major geostrategic setback for the continent. Turkmenistan will suffer because of a potential influx of Iranian refugees escaping the insecurity within their own country. The Central Asian republic, with a population of only 5 million, is already suffering from political chaos and food shortage. Poor governance has forced Turkmenistan to rely on Russian military personnel and warlords from Afghanistan to help it in securing its national borders. If Turkmenistan can hire Afghan warlords to protect its borders, Iran can hire them, too, to inject insecurity and sabotage against interests of the United States and its European allies within Turkmenistan. The domestic East-West pipeline that connects gas fields with the shores of the Caspian Sea might become a primary target for the Iranian mercenaries.
The Efficiency of U.S-Iran Conflict in Afghanistan
Security situation in Afghanistan has always been one of the most prominent obstacles in the way of implementation of energy projects, including the TAPI gas pipeline. In a scenario where Iran activates its proxies, such as the Fatemiyoun Army in Afghanistan against the American interests, prospects for implementation of TAPI may never fulfill. The Fatemiyoun Army may score additional historic records for itself during a potential conflict between Iran and the U.S. The militias are the first in a millennium that marched in their thousands from territory of contemporary Afghanistan to fight in the Arab lands in the Middle East. Over a millennium ago, natives from Khorasan had helped the installation of the Abasid dynasty in Baghdad. Since the foundation of the modern state in 1880, Afghan nationals had never fought in any foreign lands in such an organized manner. In the four decades long conflict, that started with the invasion of Afghanistan by the Red Army, none of the Afghan warrior groups had ever attended in conflicts in alien states in such a number, tens of thousands of them. Traditionally, Afghan groups have hosted foreign militants in Afghanistan who would fight under their leadership; for example, al-Qaeda members had declared their allegiance to the Taliban. Whereas, the Fatemiyoun fought in Syria to protect a foreign regime in foreign land and under direct command from the Quds Force of Iran. The state of Iran has named streets in Iranian cities after fallen members of the Fatemiyoun Army.
Iran most probably looks at Afghanistan as one of the most conducive spots for its revenge against the United States. The United States may, too, find Afghanistan to be a favorable place to launch its own military strikes against Iran. Military campaign in Afghanistan and eastern parts of Iran will not affect the flow of oil and gas through the Hormuz Strait and will save oil and gas rich Gulf countries from Iranian aerial and missile attacks. Iran would manipulate such a potential calculation of the United States in its own favor. Iran would then selectively target oil and gas vessels that the Islamic regime believes are from hostile and unfriendly nations. Whereas, it will give an unharmed passage to oil tankers that belong to nations such as Iraq, if the latter does indeed close American military bases in its territory. A full scale war in the Persian Gulf will deprive Iran from application of its carrot and stick policy against other major actors in the oil and gas market, namely exporters and importers. If Japan provides fuel to American war ships, for example, Iran would target any oil tanker that is destined for Japan. The U.S. might hire Afghan warlords, similar to its campaign against the Taliban in 2001. Now their payroll might include some groups from the Taliban too. These militias may, too, follow the Fatemiyoun’s lead and set a new record in three centuries. During the first quarter of the 18th century, Afghan tribesmen had plundered and looted their own national capital, Isfahan, and replaced Safavid rule with their own. Now they might do so in cities of a neighboring country.
The US-Iran conflict would turn Afghanistan to a second Libya. Proxies of one power would be fighting the other’s. The scenario would further make major economies in the region, China and India, more worried about extension of conflict from Iran and Afghanistan to their own societies. India is definitely more prone to insecurity than China. India will be a double loser in case the U.S. and Iran go to war with each other. First, it is not connected with oil and gas pipelines as China is. Disruption of oil and gas supplies from the Gulf region will exacerbate socio-economic crisis in India. Second, it has committed and permanent enemies. A state and well experienced none-state actors in addition to their proxies in the region. The potential state of affairs will give additional tools to India’s arch enemies to use against the South Asian power.
India had declined frequent requests from President Karzai’s government in 2013-2014 for supply of heavy military equipment to the Afghan National Army (ANA). Instead, it concurred with voices that opposed equipping ANA with offensive artilleries. Already struggling with consequential challenges, as a result of one of the most unprecedented speedy growth in the history of humankind, India and China need stability rather than the disruption of energy supplies: the main driver behind their celebrative achievements.
Peace with the Taliban
President Trump, most probably, will refer to his biggest surprise during his State of the Union address which he gave to Amy Williams, and the subsequent joy the surprise creates for all the viewers of his speech, as a justification for his decision when his government inks peace deal with the Taliban. A peace deal with the Taliban will mean reunion for American military families and national joy for all Americans, in addition, hopefully, a true peace for the people of Afghanistan. Whereas, the same deal would turn on horror alarms in New Delhi. A peace deal will mean the return of the Taliban, from India’s perspective, a proxy of its arch enemy Pakistan, to the center of power in Kabul. It is not necessarily to state that the Taliban would engage in direct destructive endeavors against the interests of India. When the Islamic militias are in Kabul, Pakistan-based militant groups, who have been supporting the Taliban in their warfare against U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, would regain the opportunity to refocus their destructive activities in Kashmir. They would provide, in addition, an inviting and conducive environment in Kashmir for other terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP), a branch of the ISIS and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), as well as the al-Qaeda. It might become very challenging for India to sustain its economic growth and security it has been enjoying for the last two decades, during the same period, Afghan, American and NATO military forces have been giving huge sacrifices in battle fields of Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban, ISKP, the IMU, the Kashmiri militants, al-Qaeda and dozens of more regional and international terrorist organizations. It might be time for India to tighten its belt and fight these groups all alone in its own territory!
The Way Forward
Turkmenistan’s mission driven approach towards the TCGP entails an important lesson for major members of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as well as for NATO members and Iran. Despite little hope for successful launch of the project and existence of major legal and geopolitical obstacles in front of TCGP, Turkmenistan resiliently performed its due share by building the domestic East-West pipeline well ahead of those legal and geopolitical challenges had been eliminated. Members of SCO and NATO, collectively as well as bilaterally, need to come up with economic strategies for Afghanistan in the aftermath of a peace deal with the Taliban that would alter, fundamentally, the country from a center of proxy groups into economic and prosperity hub for the entire region. Regional countries are the first to suffer from insecurity in Afghanistan. NATO also would not want to redeploy its troops to Afghanistan in 5-10 years, should the territory is used once again as an emanating ground for threats against the interests of NATO members worldwide. In the event NATO troops are redeployed, they will not receive similar cordial welcome by citizens of Afghanistan, as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) did in 2002. Afghans will see NATO as part of the problem, now, rather than solution, because of its irresponsible and premature departure, years earlier, which begot Afghanistan to remain fragile and prone to exploitation by regional and international terrorist organizations.
Alternatively, China and India, for example, can start building gas and oil pipelines throughout Hazarajat in central Afghanistan with a hope that sooner than later the U.S. economic sanctions on Iran will be lifted and oil and gas will flow from Iran and Eurasia via those voyages to Urumqi and further to India. They can lay foundations for railways too. To incubate the idea that Afghanistan become a hub for economic rather than insecurity for the region and the world, one pragmatic step is that, NATO and SCO need to recognize Afghanistan as a Sanction Filter Zone (SFZ). The entitlement will translate that any form of international sanctions, the U.S. sanctions against Iran included, become irrelevant once regional countries, Iran counted, choose to use the territory of Afghanistan either as an end or transit for their economic exchanges. A gas pipeline from South Pars, the largest gas field in the world, to Urumqi will become immune from sanctions, as a result of pragmatic collaboration between NATO, SCO, and Iran.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is an independent researcher of energy geopolitics in Central and South Asia. Recipient of Fulbright Scholarship from the US State Department. Alumnus of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) and the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University. Former Afghanistan Correspondent of Agence France Press (AFP).