Iran brought together envoys of the Afghan government and the Taliban movement in Tehran this week for a rare meeting between the two sides, in what appeared to be a diplomatic win for Tehran as well as a modest sign of progress in ongoing efforts towards reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan.
But with recent major battlefield advances by the Taliban and the departure of international troops, Afghans fear that such diplomatic rituals will fail to rein in the resurgence of the hardline Islamist network that once ruled the country and aspires to do so again.
The two-day Tehran summit, hosted by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Wednesday and Thursday, yielded no breakthroughs but produced a statement recognising the need to end the country’s civil war.
“The two sides understand the risks of continuing war for the country, and have agreed that war is not a solution to the Afghan issue, and all efforts should be made towards a political and peaceful solution,” the statement read.
The Afghan government delegation included former vice president Mohammad Yunus Qanooni as well as Abdul-Salam Rahimi, an adviser to President Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban team was led by Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, head of the group’s office in Doha.
Talks between the Kabul government and the Taliban, scheduled to take place in Istanbul in May, have been postponed indefinitely. Some analysts speculated that the Tehran meeting could be a precursor to more crucial talks being held at some point in the Qatari capital. Asadullah Sadati, the deputy chief of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, called the meeting “a small step in the right direction”.
In photos, Mr Zarif was shown positioned at the head of two facing tables where the Afghan government and Taliban teams were seated.
“We are very proud that we remained alongside our Afghan brothers and sisters during the jihad of the Afghan people against the foreign occupation,” he was shown saying in a short video clip.
But many Afghans are gloomy about the country’s immediate future.
The meeting in Tehran came less than a week after United States and allied troops hastily departed from the massive Bagram airfield north of Kabul and handed it over to Afghan security forces. The move effectively marked yet another milestone in the wrapping up of the 20-year US and Nato military presence in Afghanistan. It also represented something of a propaganda victory for the Taliban.
Days after the departure from Bagram, Taliban forces swarmed the country’s far northeast along with the western province of Herat, taking over rural districts held by the government.
“The optics mean so much,” said Martin Rahmani, executive director of the Afghanistan-US Democratic Peace and Prosperity Council, a Washington advocacy group. “The way that the US and Nato troops sort of disengaged from the situation created a big vacuum for the Taliban to step in to, and allowed them to come out and say they had defeated a 17-nation army.”
Backed by Pakistan and Arabian peninsula monarchies, the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban ruled the country from 1996 to 2001. It was overthrown in a Nato-backed war following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US by al-Qaeda, who were being hosted by the Taliban.
But over the last two decades, the Taliban, a collection of hardline Islamist militias rooted in Saudi-funded religious madrassas in Pakistan, regrouped and resurged, and now controls huge swathes of the desperately poor and landlocked country of 38 million.
Washington and other world powers have attempted to bolster both the Afghan security forces and the government in Kabul to help them fend off both the Taliban and the local branch of Isis. But over recent years, the US and its allies shifted course, and have instead tried to broker a peace deal between Kabul and the Taliban.
The US, the speaker of Afghanistan’s parliament and various civil society groups have offered dozens of proposals on ways to end the conflict, but the Taliban have largely ignored them.
“The Taliban are aware of all this but they haven’t said what they want,” Mr Rahmani said in an interview. “The Afghan peace negotiations team earnestly tried to have these discussions with the Taliban. But up until now the Taliban have not done anything. There are no specifics on how they’d like to be integrated.”
Iran shares a porous 570-mile border with Afghanistan and hosts an estimated 3.5 million Afghans. It has a keen interest in efforts to counter narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan and to curtail the efforts of the vehemently anti-Shia Isis. It also deems itself protector of Afghanistan’s Shia community, which is estimated to account for 15 per cent of the population and is concentrated in Kabul and the country’s central mountains.
Iran amassed troops along its eastern border and threatened war against the Taliban in 1999 after the group killed its diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif, and helped the US topple the Taliban two years later.
But it has built up diplomatic ties with the Taliban in recent years, and has been accused of helping arm some of its elements in an effort to pressure US troops deployed to Afghanistan and to hedge its bets should the Taliban defeat the Kabul government.
But Mr Rahmani warned of another humanitarian crisis, and a surge of refugees into Iran and other nations, should the hardline Taliban take over and attempt to impose its austere puritanical vision of Islam on the country. Witnesses have described huge lines at passport offices for fear of the Taliban.
“People are afraid; a lot of people are hunkering down for a long fight,” he said. “The Taliban do not respect women’s rights. They have a history of violence against women. They have a history of illiberal policies and those seem to be coming back.”