Iran is upping the ante against American military presence in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq—two of America’s so-called “forever wars” that President-Elect Joe Biden will be under pressure to finally end when he comes to power next month.
American public and political opinion turned against both wars long ago, though the strategic and security value of both nations has made it difficult for U.S. presidents to end American presence there.
President Donald Trump has spent almost four years railing against long-term U.S. deployments in the Middle East and Asia, particularly Afghanistan. Trump has been unable to deliver on his campaign promise to bring all American soldiers home, much to his own frustration.
As he prepares to leave office, the American drawdown in both countries appears a foregone conclusion, though Biden and his team have hinted they will not push ahead with rapid full withdrawal for the sake of it. It is more likely that the administration will shift from conventional deployments to more targeted counter-terrorism missions in support of local forces.
Iran has spent years cultivating influence across its border with both countries, helped by the chaos sown by American invasion and bloody occupation. The rise of and fight against the Islamic State handed Tehran more opportunities to expand its influence, and expand its network of well-armed and highly motivated militias.
Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan and others are all positioning themselves to exploit the power vacuum the U.S. will leave behind. For all the U.S. efforts to curtail growing Iranian influence in the region, ending the unpopular War on Terror-era deployments may hand Tehran a new win.
On Tuesday, for example, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, met with his Afghan counterpart Hamdullah Mohib and emphasized the need for American forces to leave the country. Under a Taliban-U.S. deal signed by Trump, American and allied NATO forces are due to have departed the country by the end of 2021.
Trump said last month he planned to cut U.S. troop numbers from 4,500 to 2,500 by the end of January when he leaves office.
Meanwhile, Afghan government troops are suffering punishing casualties in their ongoing fight against the Taliban and ISIS elements, with militants able to launch significant and deadly attacks on sensitive targets including in the capital Kabul. A rocket attack in August even hit the presidential compound in the capital.
Iran once provided intelligence to support U.S. special forces and CIA teams directing the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, but is now keen to push America out.
A report of Tuesday’s meeting by Iran’s Fars News Agency said Shamkhani expressed the need for “U.S. withdrawal from [the] region,” and expressed “Afghanistan’s special position for Iran.”
Shamkhani also encouraged “the creation of necessary infrastructures to develop bilateral ties,” “Iran’s firm support for Afghanistan’s legal government,” and cooperation to destroy ISIS remnants.
Tehran is taking concrete steps to tie Afghanistan’s economy and infrastructure to its own. Earlier this month, for example, Iranian and Afghan officials celebrated the opening of a new 136 mile train line connecting Iran’s eastern city of Khaf with Afghanistan’s western city of Ghorian. The line is part of the mammoth project to connect China to Europe by rail.
Tehran has traditional ties with Afghanistan’s Shi’ite Hazara minority and the Persian-speaking ethnic Tajiks. But Iran is also working to improve its ties with the Taliban, hedging its bets as to who will come out on top in the post-American power struggle for control of the country. Taliban leaders have even visited Tehran in recent years, despite historic enmity between the Shi’ite regime in Tehran and the Sunni extremists.
Foreign minister Javad Zarif also met with Mohib in Tehran on Tuesday, stressing the regime’s desire for U.S. troops to depart. “We see an inclusive political solution with the participation of all Afghan groups as the best guarantee of sustainable peace in the country,” he said, according to the Tasnim News Agency.
While Mohib was in Tehran, acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller was meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul to discuss “the historic opportunity for peace, the continued U.S. support for the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces, and the importance of achieving a reduction in violence to advance the peace process.”
U.S.-Iran relations have collapsed under Trump, with the two nations coming close to war multiple times during his term and Tehran expanding its nuclear program with the deterioration of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement.
One of the tensest moments came after the American assassination of Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the covert Quds Force and widely considered the second most powerful man in the regime. Iran retaliated with ballistic missile strikes on Iraqi bases hosting U.S. troops, but officials have vowed further revenge.
At Tuesday’s meeting in Tehran, Shamkhani tied America’s Afghanistan mission to Soleimani’s killing. “The U.S. has intensified its measures to foment insecurity in West Asia region in the past year and the climax of this behavior was the cowardly assassination of anti-terrorism commanders General Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis,” Shamkhani said.
Muhandis was the commander of the powerful Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization dominated by Iran-aligned Shi’ite militias that rose to prominence during Iraq’s campaign against ISIS. The PMU is now a major player in Iraqi politics, and a way for Iran to wield influence over domestic affairs.
Iran has long been the dominant foreign force in Iraq, and its allies and bombs killed hundreds of American troops during the occupation. As American influence and interest in Iraq has waned, the war-torn nation has become a key part of Iran’s regional influence network and campaign against the U.S.
The disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq has scarred the collective American psyche and unleashed chaos on the Middle East. Polls have shown that Americans largely want the troops to come home, and the Pentagon is now in the process of scaling back its Iraq deployment from 3,000 to 2,500 soldiers as ordered by Trump.
Those that remain will have to deal with a hostile environment. The American embassy in Baghdad, for example, is regularly attacked by Iranian-backed militias. And last year, protesters supported by militants stormed and ransacked the facility.
Iraqi militia leaders announced a truce in October providing the U.S. presented a roadmap for full withdrawal. This did not materialize, and last month the militias resumed attacks. American supply convoys in the country are once again being targeted by IEDs, and rockets are once again falling on Baghdad’s high-security Green Zone.
Biden will inherit Trump’s diplomatic wreckage on Iran, his draconian sanctions on Tehran and the fallout from the assassinations of Soleimani and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Iranian leaders are keen to revive the JCPOA and crawl out from under sanctions, but Tehran still wants Americans out of its neighborhood.
Shamkhani said Tuesday that the country remains committed to a “harsh revenge” for Soleimani’s death, and a broader posture “to stop the U.S. and its agents’ continued terrorist and anti-security actions which stir tension in the region, and force them to leave the region.”
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