As Iranian officials warn of “severe revenge” for the recent U.S. killing of their country’s most powerful military commander, Afghan officials are seeking reciprocal assurances from Tehran that their country will not be harmed in a confrontation with Washington.
“We have assured Iran that Afghanistan’s soil will not be used against it,” Javed Faisal, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s national security council, told Radio Free Afghanistan on January 6. “Similarly, we expect that neighbors will not be used against us.”
On January 5, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, to assure him that based on Afghanistan’s Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, his country will not be used against other nations.
According to a statement by the Afghan presidential palace, Ghani also offered his condolences regarding the January 3 killing of Qasem Soleimani in a U.S. drone strike outside the Baghdad airport.
The 2014 BSA stipulated that the United States does not seek “a presence that is a threat to Afghanistan’s neighbors, and has pledged not to use Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks against other countries.” The agreement provides the basis for the presence of some 14,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
According to Iran’s Tasnim News, in his telephone conversation with Ghani, Rouhani said Tehran “expects our neighbors and friendly governments to unanimously condemn” Soleimani’s killing.
Afghans worry that escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran might turn their country into a battlefield between a global superpower and a regional power that shares a 900-kilometer-long border with western and southern Afghan provinces.
This prompted Ghani to call on Iran and the United States to refrain from increasing tensions in his initial reaction to Soleimani’s killing.
“We call on the Islamic Republic of Iran, our big neighbor, with whom we have extensive common language, religious, historic, and cultural [values], and we call on the U.S., who is Afghanistan's strategic and fundamental partner, to prevent conflict escalations, and we hope that both sides solve their differences through negotiations,” he said in a January 3 statement.
In his telephone call with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the same day, Ghani reiterated that the BSA requires his country’s soil not be used against another country.
Iran became one of the first Muslim countries to condemn the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States that killed more than 3,000 people. As the leader of the elite Quds Force, Soleimani quietly helped the U.S. attack that overthrew the Taliban in December that year.
But the Iranian special forces general turned into a leading American adversary after President George W. Bush declared Tehran to be part of an “axis of evil” in 2002. The U.S. invasion of Iran the next year eventually pushed Tehran and Washington into a proxy war in Iraq, where Saddam Hussain’s overthrow empowered Shi’ite factions allied with Tehran.
Around that time, Soleimani extended covert support to his country’s erstwhile Taliban enemies. The Iranian cooperation with the hard-line Sunni Taliban deepened over the years and resulted in preventing the ultra-radical Islamic State from establishing a foothold in provinces bordering Iran after its emergence in eastern Afghanistan in early 2015.
The demise of the Taliban regime also paved the way for a greater Iranian role in Afghanistan. In the years following the outbreak of a civil war in Syria, Soleimani established the Fatemiyoun Division. The militia estimated to number up to 20,000 fighters, mainly recruited from Afghanistan’s Shi’ite Hazara minority. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of its members have been killed in Syria.