Are Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and China a new axis of power? Is the Taliban really reformed, is terror still an instrument of policy, and what should the US be most afraid of in the region?
These are just a few of the questions we discuss on this week’s WhoWhayWhy podcast with Middle East scholar and author Shay Khatiri.
Khatiri, born in Iran and a long-time student of the region, provides a detailed analysis of our misguided optimism about the Taliban. He points out that, unless we think caning is objectively better than dismembering limbs, the Taliban have not really reformed. All one has to do, he says, is look at the primary texts of their religion and realize they can never truly reform.
He thinks that much of the optimistic talk, coming from both the Biden administration and the mainstream media, is just the result of successful Taliban PR. Khatiri further explains why the Taliban is so good at telling the West what it wants to hear.
He points out the similarities between Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership and, more importantly, the role Iran will play in Afghanistan’s future. Just as Iran benefited from our defeat in Iraq, it may very well benefit from our defeat in Afghanistan.
However, Khatiri cautions that Iran may be playing with fire as it tries to work with the Taliban. A further complication is Iran’s concern about adding to its already huge number of Afghan refugees.
Finally, he breaks down the roles that Russia and China will play in Afghanistan. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s primary concern is that Russia is the nexus between the Taliban and the radical Islamists in Chechnya who have been held responsible for a number of destabilizing terrorist attacks throughout Russia.
As for China, which shares a small border with Afghanistan, Beijing worries about the growing radicalization of its mostly Muslim Uyghurs, and the potential influence of Sunni extremists near its border. There is also, Khatiri explains, China’s larger goal of extracting Afghanistan’s mineral resources, particularly its valuable lithium, a key element in rechargeable batteries for mobile phones, laptops, digital cameras, and electric vehicles.
There are a lot of chess pieces moving across the global board. Khatiri helps us try and understand the likely next moves.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman. Global history may not repeat itself, and sometimes it may not even rhyme. However, it does continue to move forward and in a way that assures us that the past and present are the best blueprint we have for what’s next. How we read that blueprint will determine the success or failure of our ongoing policy around the world. Nowhere is this more true today than with the events taking place in Afghanistan, in Iran, in Pakistan, and in Russia and China. They are a multipolar set of chess pieces that are awaiting the next move.
We best study the board, and to help us do that, I’m joined by my guest Shay Katiri. Shay is a writer in Strategic Studies and International Economics at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He grew up in Iran, was active in the Green Movement, and has been blacklisted from the country. He studies politics at Arizona State University, is a contributor to The Bulwark and This Week. He writes the Substack, The Russia-Iran File. And in addition, his writings have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, The American Interest, National Review, and The Jerusalem Post. It is my pleasure to welcome Shay Katiri here to the program. Shay, thanks so much for joining us.
Shay Katiri: Thanks for having me, Jeff.
Jeff: First of all, I want to talk about this idea that we keep hearing over and over again, that somehow this is the Taliban 2.0 that has taken over in Afghanistan, that somehow the Taliban has been reformed since it took over the last time back in 1998. Talk about that.
Shay: So, there are two different ways to think about this. One is that the Taliban has run an excellent PR campaign so far to make the point that they have become better. They have been saying, particularly, [what] Americans and Westerners would like about allowing girls into schools this time. And they are formulating policies, at least so far, they are making that signal that they are going to do that this time. Time will tell.
Based on the personnel that we are looking at, many of the personnel are the same as last time, and the new ones are even more radical. So there is a degree of suspicion there that this might not be the case in the long run. But also, no less important is the fact that I joked on Twitter; I guess it was a very dark joke that “Last time the Taliban would chop off women’s fingers if they had colored their nails. And if this time they just beat them with a cane, it’s reforms. It is an improvement. It is not acceptable.”
So there’s also even if they have reformed, and honestly, time will tell, I am incredibly suspicious that they have reformed. I think they just want to grow roots in the society, grow back the roots of their regimes to become stable and return to the old practices. But even if they retain some of the reformed social policies, there’s so much room for improvement that just reading through the primary text of their leaders, their ideologies, their brand of Islam, the degree of reform acceptable to us is unacceptable to them.
I remember in grad school, I had a wonderful professor, Mary Hebek, who taught Jihadi Salafism. And we were only assigned primary texts to read — no analysis — only things that they have written and they have said. And she only would say, “Listen, these are not supposed to make sense. If they start making sense, that’s the time to ask for help.” And it is true because having read those texts, their view of the world is not something that could be compromised with our standards.
Jeff: How did they get so good at the PR part of this? Because I think that the assumption that people are making is because somehow if they’re good at PR, it must be some kind of signal of transformation.
Shay: There are a couple of different points. One is that it is easy to be good at PR towards open societies, be it the United States, the United Kingdom, or South Korea, or Japan, because we are free societies; we are open societies. We tell the world what we like, how we are. That is the nature of the liberal regime. And so, they know what we want to hear. That’s one element of it. And also, they are very tech-savvy, by the way, I should add. The Islamic State that came to power in 2013 and became a phenomenon in 2014 was very tech-savvy, especially with social media. So, they have a Salafist Taliban, or not Salafist actually, but close enough.
They have a rule based on their reading of Islam’s law that you’re not allowed to adopt the principles of the West, but you are allowed and encouraged to adopt their methods, their technology. And they are very good at studying how social media works to turn it into their advantage. Also, there is a second element; I highly recommend reading a book that came out, I believe a year ago, by my former professor again, Thomas Rid; it’s called Active Measures.
It is a history of disinformation campaigns from 1900. And one of the key findings of the book is that information and disinformation campaigns are always very, very, very successful when they tell you what you want to hear. And there is already a preconceived notion in your head, and they just hammer on that. And there is a part of the American society that wants to believe, that for just being good-natured or just wanting to have an excuse to get out of Afghanistan, whatever reason they want to believe, that the Taliban might actually be better this time.
And whatever they sell us, we’re willing to buy just to be convinced, just to convince ourselves, I should say, to get out of Afghanistan. And that is a very, very, very important point to remember. This is especially true, weirdly enough, among the more intelligent people — the more intelligent people who are very, very, very successful in convincing themselves into believing crap. And a lot of them are in the political class, in the commentariat. So, that’s also important to keep in mind.
Jeff: What about the leadership of the Taliban? You alluded to this before that the leadership is pretty similar to what it was back in ‘98.
Shay: Yes, it is very similar. One of the memes that have been going around is that the quasi-mayor of Kabul is a Haqqani — the head of the Haqqani terror group. And, for example, Baradar Ghani, who’s the Emir of the Taliban, is one of the early Taliban. And the leadership is quite similar. Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio at Foundation for Defense of Democracies have done a very good job in laying out how the overlapping structure of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, actually, and how many of the commanders are the same. And they’re not the same group, to be fair. There are differences between them, but they do share a lot of key personalities.
And so a lot of the people are the same, both from the last time when they were around and with Al-Qaeda as it exists today. But also, there are younger people who are no less radicalized. In a way, they’re even more radicalized than the old leadership because they just grew up under the Taliban and liked what they were hearing, joined the Taliban, and already radicalized, within the ranks became even more radical. And then there is that group. And there is very little hope that they have changed their understanding of the world at all, and if they have, for the better.
Jeff: One of the things that you’ve written about is that Iran is playing with fire, I think you said, with respect to the Taliban. And yet, their relationship is different now than it was twenty years ago. Talk about what’s the same and what’s changed and why it’s so dangerous for Iran.
Shay: I wrote a post on my Substack a week ago, I believe, about the 1998 Mazar-i-Sharif massacre in Afghanistan where eleven Iranian agents, posed as diplomats, were killed by the Taliban. And that almost brought the two countries, Iran and Afghanistan, under the Taliban, to the brink of war. It did not happen due to, at least at the time, supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s cautious character, I guess. That was the time they held peace talks a year later, and it went nowhere. The two countries remain enemies. Iran was, to some extent, a supporter of the Afghanistan war.
They did not help much, but they supported our regime change policy in Afghanistan in 2001. So there was a huge enmity between the Taliban and Iran. A few years ago, that began to change. We suddenly start seeing reports of Al-Qaeda members having had a safe haven in Iran. We start seeing Taliban leaders frequently visit Iran and having a very good follow-up with regime leaders. And now Iran is saying that it is committed to the principle of “good neighborliness.” That is to say, “We are going to be a good neighbor to Afghanistan, no matter the regime in charge.”
Iran has several interests in Afghanistan in addition to the security element. That is, they want to be on the good side of people, even more fanatical than themselves on their border. They do not want Sunni terrorism to spill on the wrong side of the border inside Iran, which is rather ironic since the regime has been promoting terrorism for such a long time. They have Balochi separatists in Southeast Iran who are ethnic and religious minorities. They are Sunni Baloches, and to some extent, they have a good relationship with the Taliban.
The most famous spiritual leader recently in the region said very nice things about the Taliban, about how they’re good people and freedom fighters. They do not want those ethnic minorities to form a separatist pact with the Taliban. They also are worried about Farsi speakers in Afghanistan, who are also minorities, and Shiite Hazaras, who have strong sympathies to the point of allegiance to Iran and are both a strategic asset for recruitment for Iran’s proxies, precisely the Fatemiyoun Brigade. And they want protection for those people. And all of these elements have made Iran wonder if they can work a deal with the Taliban to protect their interest.
Jeff: One of the other aspects from Iran’s point of view was fear of more refugees. Talk about that.
Shay: Yes. True, Iran already has the second largest population of African refugees — Pakistan has the largest one — and there are different reasons for that. One is, first and foremost, being neighbors. Second, the fact that many Afghans speak Farsi, so it is easier for them to immigrate to Iran, where they can speak the language. The problem is that due to a cohort of state policies, social stigma, and just the fact that these are refugees in a country that is incredibly racist against — by state policy and by social behavior — against minorities, on top of the fact that there’s very little social upward mobility for anybody.
So these people arrive in Iran poor, they are discriminated against, they cannot find jobs for a variety of reasons, and they have to engage in criminal activity, which just furthers the racist stigma. But again, it also adds to social incohesion that is already existent in Iran. And the regime is very, very, very worried about that. They do not want more Afghan refugees to get into levers of society. They have said that they will host a rather large number of temporary refugees; they have been very insistent on using the word temporary. But they’re probably going to keep them in camps to prevent them from entering society at large.
Jeff: Why does Iran think that it can manage this, given the history of the Taliban, the history of that relationship? Why does Iran think that somehow this time, they can manage all of these pieces?
Shay: One is that the Iran of this time is, militarily, the security forces, I should say, and are significantly stronger than the security forces of the 1990s when they had just come out of a devastating war. The economy both times were (are) in shambles, although the trajectory last time was much better. But the security forces are much better this time — are much stronger. So the deterrence against the Taliban is much more significant. On the other hand, the interests of Iran have changed. At the time, Iran did not have any ties with Shiite Hazaras, any formal ties, I should say. This time they have the Fatemiyoun Brigade that they need.
They have added their proxies to further their strategic depth in the region; last time, that was not a policy of Iran to create proxies like mushrooms all over the region. So the interests of Iran have changed. And in addition, this time, they have been in frequent contact with the Taliban for years now, maybe even ten years, at this point. And they might have an understanding between them behind the scenes that we are unaware of.
And on the other hand, they have very little choice. They cannot and do not want to antagonize a neighbor that is quite dangerous at a time when the society, domestically, is a boiling pot, and they’re under terrible economic pressure from the outside and the inside. And they just do not want more trouble. Granted, it is very difficult to manage the Taliban and not make them trouble for you; it is when you get off the tiger, right?
Jeff: If this all isn’t complicated enough just in terms of those relationships, the other broader relationships that enter into all of this are what’s going on with Russia and China in the region. Talk first about Russia.
Shay: The Russians as well as the Chinese as well as the Iranians — they all have the problem, the fear, of having Sunni extremism spill into their borders. The Russians have the Chechens, which is, by virtue of geography, actually not close to the Taliban. Chechnya is in Southwest Russia, which is quite removed from Afghanistan. You have to go across the Caspian Sea to reach Afghanistan from Chechnya. Nevertheless, there’s also the Internet side. The Chechens could find inspiration in the Taliban. May I remind you that Putin came to power during the apartment bombings in the 1990s, which probably were inside jobs but reflected a broader problem of attrition extremism.
And they have gone to war with Chechnya quite a few times; once Putin was in Yeltsin’s cabinet and when Putin became President later; and they have had hostage crises with Chechen extremists. And they do not want the Taliban to become an inspiration for Chechens. On top of that, you have some Chechen leaders saying nice things about the Taliban, which raised some red flags for Putin’s regime. And if I may add, I recall that Russia, and precisely Chechnya, I believe, was the third-largest pool of foreign fighters for the Islamic State that came from Chechnya in Iraq and Syria when the Islamic State was on the march.
So there are all these problems for Russia, and again they also have a refugee problem because Afghanistan is in the neighborhood; they have already begun to deport the existing Afghan refugees from decades ago, who have been there for decades. They are deporting them back to Afghanistan. So Russia has quite similar worries in Afghanistan with the Taliban as Iran does in Russian circles. Putin had five seconds of a shorter Freud that America lost and was humiliated until he realized what had been unleashed upon him. And then you have the Chinese who are quite worried about the Uyghurs.
The justification that the Chinese regime has provided for incarcerating at least a million Uyghurs into concentration camps has been terrorism, that these people are terrorists. There have been a few instances of terrorism over the past ten-fifteen years by Uyghurs, but it is really anecdotal. It’s not a problem. But when you put a million people because of their ethnicity and their religion into concentration camps, you turn them into radicals. It is inevitable and understandable that the Uyghurs might be turning radical, and suddenly you have a country on your border — China and Afghanistan share a small border in Zhenjiang province of China, I must add, that Uyghurs are in — and on the other side of the border, you have Sunni extremists, who might abet and assist Uyghurs; and vice versa, you might have Uyghurs who go into Afghanistan to join the Taliban but come back.
Actually, it’s quite interesting if you go and see some Islamic fundamentalists, how their view is. You have to do your Hijrah, which is your immigration because Prophet Muhammad did it. He emigrated from Mecca to Medina, and then from Medina, he returned to Mecca. So you have to do that ritual, as a lot of foreign fighters have viewed it this way, that we go elsewhere, we do our foreign fighting and return to where we left at some future point.
A lot of Islamic State militants actually were seniors who were expelled by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, and they became foreign fighters in Iraq and elsewhere and returned, and they said, “We completed al-Hijra, the spiritual Hijrah.” You might have that with Uyghurs as well, who go to the other side of the border, spend time there, and return. So all of these countries have, quite honestly, been very oppressive of some ethnic and religious minorities, all of whom have sympathies with the Taliban and have religious similarities. And now that they are in trouble, they are quite fearful that those Sunni minorities might be inspired and even assisted by the Taliban.
Jeff: China thinks they can solve the problem or fend off the problem with money, and with aid, and with infrastructure improvement. How realistic is that?
Shay: The best I have to offer is, we will see. One depends on how interested the Taliban is in those kinds of, basically taking the trash out of part of, governments. We will see how interested the Taliban is in that aspect of governance, which is infrastructure, taking the trash out, that China might be able to help with development, let’s say. Then there’s the security side. The Taliban doesn’t really need help with the security side, at least, if history is any guide. Last time they did pretty well with security and order in Afghanistan. But I think China’s greater interest is in Afghanistan’s mineral resources. One very important one is lithium, which is incredibly important in building batteries, for instance.
As we are moving towards different forms of energy, batteries are becoming more and more important. And China definitely wants to have some deal with the Taliban that [says], “You do what you want to do, we will help you with that. Can we just basically take ownership of your mineral resources that are becoming incredibly important for both strategic and economic reasons?”
Jeff: Is the Taliban sophisticated enough to manage this axis, this situation that involves Iran, and Russia, and China, and the Taliban at the center of it?
Shay: It is in the geographic center of it, for sure, but it does not have the kind of power to be at the political center of it. Having said that, I think that the relationship is going to be an axis of revisionism, that it doesn’t take more sophistication, it rather takes good instincts that the Taliban might have this time, unlike the last time that they stepped on their toes last time by allowing Al-Qaeda to orchestrate attacks against the United States. This time, they might have realized that as long as they avoid something like 9/11 and just settle for smaller attacks, that would keep us out of Afghanistan and leave them to their own.
And Russia, Iran, and China have no interest in overthrowing the regime, and they will do whatever they want domestically. And the deal that they are probably going to reach is they will make some compromises with these three regimes in exchange for being left alone and preferably receiving some money from them. I don’t think it needs that much sophistication, honestly.
Jeff: What is the best policy at all of this for the United States?
Shay: I think the best policy here is for the United States to just be honest with itself. Different people will have different prescriptions with how much we want to do in the greater Middle East and how much the Middle East matters in the greater Middle East, or I should say, matters in great power competition against China and Russia and, for the first time, Iran. But we can have those debates after an admission that the Taliban, Iran, China, and Russia are all revisionists. And what they want to do is to change the current international order, and we want to protect the current international order.
They have a lot of differences among themselves, but their foremost goal is overthrowing the current order, and that unites them much more than it divides them. And that makes them friends of each other, way before they become foes. Let me put it this way: if they ever succeed in changing the international order, you might end up with postwar, US-Soviet relations. But right now, they have the wartime US-Soviet relations — that is, they have a bigger enemy.
And they will get to their own differences after they get rid of the current enemy, which is the United States. I hope it never comes to that point. I highly doubt it will ever get to that. I have faith in the future of America, despite that I am always a short-term pessimist and long-term optimist. But that’s how they view it, and we need to acknowledge that it will be next to impossible, if not literally impossible, to turn them against each other.
Jeff: And what is the biggest concern you have for danger coming from that part of the world, finally?
Shay: There are two. One is more immediate: It is terrorism. I am still worried about terrorism on the one hand. I must add, actually, that I did say earlier that I don’t think the Taliban will orchestrate or risk the orchestration of another 9/11 from their territory. But also, it is worth remembering that one of the Taliban’s claims to power last time was that, of the two superpowers of the world, they had defeated one of them, the Soviet Union. And that gave them legitimacy to govern Afghanistan and legitimacy in their own eyes to fight the United States, which was the last remaining superpower.
They thought that, literally, “God was on [our] side, “which is why we could defeat the Soviets. So we could defeat the United States.” Now they say that “We have defeated two superpowers.” And they’re quite right about it. And that gives them an inflated ego that should worry us about how much risk they might be willing to take. So, that is quite worrying to me, from a terrorist standpoint. The other worry that I have that is very little talked about, but there was an article by Eric Edelman, and I believe, Robert Joseph on The Bulwark about this. It’s called Afghanistan’s Terrorist Future.
And it talks about decoding the bipartisan Afghanistan Strategy Review that former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford, and former Senator Kelly Ayotte, co-chaired. It talks about the danger of the nuclear black market and that Afghanistan might become a hotbed for buying nuclear weapons in the black market. And if that happens, remember that you have two nuclear powers, one in China, one in Pakistan on their border; a third one, Russia, quite close; and an aspiring nuclear power, Iran, on the west side of Afghanistan’s border; and you have India also, which is a nuclear power, although India is obviously not revisionist.
But that kind of chaos could become very, very, very dangerous in that part of the world for just any country, including Iran that wants nuclear weapons and cannot build them on its own because of our regulatory regime, and because of our threats, and because of our pressure, might just go and buy them in a black market. So that is something that is not talked about much, but it is not a probability, it’s a possibility, and it’s a very dangerous one.
Jeff: Shay Katiri, his Substack is The Russia-Iran File. Shay, I thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Shay: Thank you so much, Jeff.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast, and all the work we do, by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.