February 27, 2019 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1444

U.S.-Taliban Talks Yielding A Lasting Role For Turkey And Iran In Afghanistan

February 27, 2019 | By Tufail Ahmad*
Iran, Turkey | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1444

On September 21, 2018, Washington appointed ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation.[1] Led by him, the U.S. has held multiple rounds of talks with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban organization that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The Taliban's Qatar-based Political Office is the agency engaged in the talks, which are ongoing, with the U.S. and other nations, including in Iran, Russia, and Geneva.

The objective of the talks is to find a political settlement on the future of Afghanistan, which could facilitate the withdrawal of the U.S. and other foreign soldiers while incorporating the Afghan Taliban in any administrative setup in Kabul that is agreed upon. Some discordant notes in these talks indicate that a lasting role may be emerging for Iran and Turkey in Afghanistan. Such a role for Turkey and Iran may be partly supported by the U.S., while some may not be to its liking.

The Turkey-Taliban Role In Afghanistan

An Urdu daily, in a late February 2019 report, noted that the Taliban have insisted that after the U.S. exit, Turkey will be the sole country tasked with training the Afghan armed forces.[2] According to the report, Russia, acting at the behest of the Islamic Emirate, has sent a message to the U.S. that if it wanted the talks to succeed, "then Turkey cannot be ignored" and "a big role must be given to Turkey" because "the Afghan Taliban have refused to receive training [for the Afghan security forces] from any country other than Turkey."[3]

A young Erdoğan (right) sits at the feet of mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Since Turkey is a NATO member, it appears that the United States is inclined to approve such a role for Turkey as a result of any settlement that is agreed between the parties, if one can be reached at all. On giving a role for Turkey, the Urdu daily noted: "On this demand by the Taliban and Russia, American officials have held long discussions with officials from Turkey. The Turkish officials have said that the government of Turkey will hold talks with Iran and Pakistan regarding this."[4]

In December 2018, Roznama Ummat, an Urdu daily that puts forth pro-Taliban and pro-Pakistani viewpoints, published an analysis advising the Islamic Emirate to curtail the influence of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which are seen as pro-U.S. in their stances.[5] It added: "Instead of trusting undependable countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Taliban should repose trust in Turkey and Qatar which will be their real backers in the difficulties that emerge."[6] At present, Turkey has about 700 "military advisers" in Afghanistan and has extended its military mission there to 2020, according to another report.[7]

Washington's willingness to allow Turkey a role comes despite the fact that the Afghan Taliban have stuck to their demand that the U.S. will have no military bases in Afghanistan. This demand is rooted in the Taliban's understanding that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is the main cause of the Afghan problem. In fact, on December 18, 2018, the Islamic Emirate issued a statement making it absolutely clear: "Nothing about an interim government, ceasefire, elections, nor any other internal issue is being discussed; rather the main topic is the American occupation."[8]

Iran-Pakistan-Taliban Tripartite Pact

Pakistan, especially the Pakistani military's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), is the main backer of the Islamic Emirate. It is the ISI which conceives, designs and implements the Pakistani position on Afghanistan, and also on Kashmir, through the use of jihadi organizations. Roznama Ummat is also the main media vehicle through which the ISI's line of arguments emerge.

In late December 2018, a report in Roznama Ummat revealed that Iran, Pakistan and the Taliban – the presumed sovereign rulers of Afghanistan in the near future – have evolved a tripartite plan to be implemented following a settlement resulting from the U.S.-Taliban talks.[9] The maneuvering for the tripartite plan was undertaken after the U.S. began moving its troops from Nuristan and Kunar provinces of eastern Afghanistan to the main U.S. airbase at Bagram, hoping to withdraw about 7,000 American troops by June 2019.

"At the behest of the Afghan Taliban, the chief of the Iranian intelligence agency Ali Salman Shamkhani has said in clear terms during meetings with Afghan President Dr. Ashraf Ghani, [Chief Executive] Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and chief of Afghan intelligence Masoom Stanekzai [now replaced]," the report noted, "that they [Iran] not only have contacts with the Taliban, but jointly with the Taliban they will secure the [international] border along northern Afghanistan and western Afghanistan..."[10]

Effectively, these developments mean that in a post-settlement scenario, the remaining eastern and southern borders of Afghanistan will be managed by the Taliban and Pakistan jointly as part of the likely Iran-Pakistan-Taliban deal. Such a deal or understanding will suit Pakistan and China, which hopes to station half a million Chinese nationals in Gwadar port city in Baluchistan province of Pakistan by 2022 and is therefore courting Maulana Masood Azhar, the emir of Pakistani jihadi organization Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), to ensure security.[11]

"[The Iranian intelligence chief] Ali Shamkhani also held talks with the national security adviser of Afghanistan Hamdullah Mohib," the daily reported, "and said that an agreement is to be decided on/signed in the talks between Iran and the Afghan Taliban according to which Iran will not support any [non-Taliban] faction in Afghanistan after the American withdrawal and Iran will play its role in preventing a civil war."[12] It is clear that Iran, and some other nations, are treating the Taliban as the representative of the Afghan state, thereby ignoring the elected Afghan government.

The Urdu daily Roznama Ummat reported that the Taliban have insisted on a role for Turkey in Afghanistan.

In December 2018-January 2019, when these developments emerged in the Pakistani media, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan issued a formal statement, accepting that a Taliban delegation visited Iran to hold talks. It said: "A delegation of the Islamic Emirate reached Tehran the other day in the ongoing series of contacts with regional countries. This delegation was sent to the Iranian capital of Tehran in order to exchange views with the neighboring country Iran about post-occupation Afghanistan and restoration of regional peace and stability."[13]

The Iranian government has urged the Afghan Taliban to establish a political arm and forge a political alliance with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the emir of the underground jihadi group Hizb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) who has now joined the Afghan peace process. "Admitting the usefulness of this advice, the Taliban – keeping in front of them the Turkish model – have begun work on strengthening their political arm," a media report noted.[14]

While Pakistan has always backed the Afghan Taliban, Iran's nudge to the jihadi organization to forge a political alliance with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar introduces an interesting turning point where the interests of Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey begin to merge. The reason the Taliban and Pakistan are inclined to get Turkey on board is because the Turkish government is headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Islamist policies are well known.

Erdoğan has a long-standing relationship with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has been an important ally of Al-Qaeda in the past. In 2003, a few months after Erdoğan was elected prime minister of Turkey, a Turkish daily published a picture of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with two men sitting at his feet, one of whom was a young Erdoğan.[15] The relationship between Erdoğan and Hekmatyar is significant because the latter is a candidate in the Afghan presidential elections to be held on July 20, 2019.


These developments emerge at a time the Islamic Emirate has stuck to its traditional position that it does not consider the elected government of Afghanistan as a representative of Afghans, refusing repeatedly to allow the Afghan government to sit at the table of any negotiations. As a concession, the Islamic Emirate agreed to sit down with Afghan leaders, not government officials, at the Moscow conference in the first week of February 2019.

However, over the past decade and more, the Taliban have never viewed negotiations with the U.S. or with any other nation as a means to a political settlement of the Afghan problem. Their understanding has always been that such international talks offer legitimacy to their jihadi fighters and the Islamic Emirate derives diplomatic legitimacy as an international partner and as the only representative of Afghanistan, since the Afghan government is not part of such negotiations.

At the Moscow conference, the Taliban delegation made it absolutely clear that such talks are not negotiations on the future of Afghanistan. It specifically noted that "before the beginning of the peace talks, some preliminary steps must be taken that are essential for peace."[16] Since and before then, the Taliban have stipulated many demands that could offer them international legitimacy without agreeing to any concessions either to the Afghan government or to the United States.

In fact, after the Geneva talks on November 27-28, 2018, the Afghan Taliban stated clearly that they are "fighting and negotiating" simultaneously. A statement issued by them said: "The policy of the Islamic Emirate about negotiations is very clear. The Islamic Emirate... is waging war against the American invaders for the past eighteen years. The Islamic Emirate, as a representative of the valiant mujahid Afghan nation and as a sovereign entity, is fighting and negotiating with the American invaders for the success of jihad."[17]

* Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow for the MEMRI Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative


[1] (U.S.), September 21, 2018.

[7] Roznama Ummat, December 28, 2018.

[11], February 21, 2019.

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