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Perils Of Proxy Wars In Afghanistan: A Comparative Analysis Of Pakistan’s ISI And Iran’s IRGC


Proxy wars have been used by the powers to serve the national security and long term interests of countries without being involving directly. The general syndrome is that a powerful country supports a state or even non state actor who has mutually shared goals in a particular area or zone. But the history of the proxy wars is wrought with numerous debilitating moral consequences, threats to security and stability in the theatre of proxy war. In addition, it can simply drag the power into an unending stream of conflagration with heavy cost of man and material. It may also cost the power in terms of credibility and aura of power. (Editor’s note: An updated and expanded version of this article can be found here: Perils Of Proxy Wars In Afghanistan: A Comparative Study Of The ISI Of Pakistan And The IRGC Of Iran – Analysis)

A simple and cursory overview is enough to suggest that the proxy wars suffer from several perceptible destructive consequences. Besides the moral deficiency it runs the risk of escalation, control over the arms and ammunition supplied and their slipping into bad hands and therefore violence continues in the post-settlement period with spiralling cycles. It defies any intervention of peace measures and settlement. 

There is worldwide attention towards Iran’s growing influence in the whole of West Asian region with its very effective network of its proxies across the region. The Islamic Republican Guard Corps (IRGC) of the Islamic Republic of Iran has created its network of proxies through its Quds Force in the region and beyond especially in Afghanistan. The activities of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan has adopted the proxy syndrome and has devastating consequences for the countries of South Asia including Afghanistan and Iran at large and India in particular owing to its historically hostile background.

A critical perusal and comparative study of the two-IRGC and ISI and their proxy wars in Afghanistan will provide a necessary insights for an effective Indian strategy for dealing with this menacing national security threat and adopt a resilient and pragmatic policy towards West Asia and geopolitical edge in Afghanistan

The Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence, generally referred as ISI, with huge political influence and around 25000 personnel, is very ruthless separate entity of Pakistan, almost independent of its military and beyond any meaningful oversight of the civilian government. Its Afghanistan operation is India-centric and based on the fact that Afghanistan’s policy towards India must be in line with Pakistan and adopts punitive approach and action in the wake of Kabul’s tilt towards India.

ISI’s coercive policy and proxy war in Afghanistan to attain its geopolitical goals have resulted in unending stream of violence in the post 9/11 period. To remain relevant in the face of US presence and competition from other regional powers mainly Iran’s IRGC, it has assumed Jihadi route of unprecedented scale. Besides Taliban, ISI has promoted and supported the Haqqani Network, officially under larger Taliban umbrella; it maintains distinct command, control and lines of operations. A section of Pakistan military view the network as a better ally and proxy force for its Afghan interests, as the network have repeatedly targeted the Indian interests- infrastructure projects and construction sites in Afghanistan. Based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, the Network has been very lethal and sophisticated in its targets against the US coalition forces and Afghan government security apparatus. The US coalition has suffered considerably and has not been able to manage the affairs with the Pakistan government as these proxies are functioning under the directions of the ISI. The ISI has been able to manoeuvre successfully in their mission with these proxies in Afghanistan by disguising itself as friend of the US strategy in the country.

However, the most notable element in the Afghan imbroglio is the steady rise and spread of influence of Iran’s IRGC activities. Iran has historical interest and shares intimate ethnic, linguistic and religious affinity with the Afghan Shia minority Hazaras in the central and northern region of the country. Its historical roots can be traced back to the Treaty of Paris, 1857 when Iran abandoned its historic claim on Herat but reserved the right to send forces into Afghanistan if its frontier was violated. Given this background, Iran’s Afghanistan policy is a stable and friendly or at least, not an inimical government in the country to have stable border, ensure safety of its Shia minority, maintain cultural relations and economic engagements particularly in the Herat region.

Iran’s policy therefore, has been firmly ruthless but evinces a pragmatic dynamism to adjust in the changing geopolitical condition and security ecosystem of Afghanistan. The violent excesses of the Taliban against the Shia population and bloody raid of Iranian Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif killing eight official made the IRGC to cooperate and coordinate with invading American army in 2001 by providing intelligence and even the IRGC elements fought on the ground. But they parted their ways when the US declared Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil”.

The IRGC is an ideological driven entity and use it ideology pragmatically abroad through Quds force. The changing security and power dynamics in Afghanistan made IRGC to coordinate with Taliban based on their shared Islamic ideology and common enemies- the foreign occupiers in the country. The contact and cooperation between the Taliban and IRGC have become a lethal combination against the US and allies in Afghanistan. For IRGC it was a cleaver move to maintain leverage with the Afghan government. Through its special Quds force it has supplied considerable weapons, explosives, roadside bombs and all necessary to the Afghan Taliban. The IRGC has a very farsighted vision and strategy behind such an unlikely alliance. 

IRGC uses this leverage to escalate violence in Afghanistan in order to limit the constraining Iran policy of the West, maintain its sphere of influence in Herat and a strategic advantage for its transport linkages of the Gulf with Central Asia and the Far East. One of the Taliban governing council or Shura is in Mashhad, Khorasan-e Razavi, Iran, initially opened as a liaison office between the Taliban and IRGC in 2007. The ‘Ansar Corps’ was established by Gen. Qassem Suleimani and commanded by the current head of the Quds Force, Esmail Qaani for supervision and coordination of the IRGC-Taliban relations.

The IRGC mobilised its military and advisors to Syria to prop up the regime of President Assad which also included Afghan war hardened veterans of the “Fatemiyon Brigade”, an affiliate of the IRGC composed of the Afghani Shia who have created a revolutionary niche during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980. Initially mobilised to defend the shrine of Sayyed Zeinab in the outskirt of Damascus it turned into Afghan resistance narrative to the growing transnational Sunni jihadism and their number swelled substantially. Ismail Qaani has long association with the “Fatemiyon Brigade” who visited Afghanistan with an Iranian delegation and had talks with President Ashraf Ghani and Mr Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive of the country.

The IRGC has grown in strength in Afghanistan and adopting its old tested tactics used in Iraq by the Quds force, the tactics of abduction and has put the Afghan government, the US coalition and the Pakistani proxies under strain. In order to expand its support base and ideological penetration among the populace, IRGC network has opened a TV station promoting its Islamic ideology and interests. 

The Islamic State –Khorasan (IS-K) was formed in 2015 with the estranged and defected members many terror groups based in Pakistan like Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e- Islam, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Haqqani group and Islamic movement of Afghanistan under the leadership of Hafiz Said Khan, a veteran of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The memberships and leadership of this additional group hardly leaves any doubt about its patronage of the ISI and its project of targeting against the Indian interests in Afghanistan. The recent gruesome attack on a Gurudwara in Kabul killing 28 innocent worshippers by the IS-K and the claim by the perpetrators that the attack was aimed at avenging Indian action in Kashmir and the report disclosed by the National Directorate of Security (NDS) that the arrested leader of the IS-K, Abdullah Orazkai alias Aslam Farooqi has revealed his close relations with Haqqani Netwrk and Lashla-e Taiba (LeT) and having links with “Regional Intelligence Agency” a euphemism for the ISI.

The ISI wants to have an unchallenged influence in Afghanistan. With its loosening control over the Afghan Taliban, it wants to disrupt the growing proximity of the Afghan government with the Islamic Republic of Iran along with India through their joint project of Chahbahar, the convergence point of geo-economic and geopolitical interests of India and Iran in Afghanistan. Besides, the ISI is responsible for attacks on the Islamic Republic by Pakistan-backed terror group, Jaish al-Adl particularly in Chahbahar zone. In October, 2018, the Jaish al-Adl operation led to the abduction of 12 Iranian security personnel near Zahedan along with Iran-Pakistan border. For Afghanistan it provides the much needed strategic relief from its dependence on Pakistan to get access to the Indian Ocean. Such developments are at loggerheads with Pakistan’s Afghan policy which has made the Pakistani deep state, ISI to create an atmosphere of disruption through its proxies. There was a similar attack in the port city of Chahbahar by Pakistan-based Ansar al Forghan with links with the outlawed Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

The IRGC for long nurtured its ideological entity, “Zaynabiyon or Zainiboun Brigade”, inside Pakistan among its poor and discriminated Shia population and Pakistani Shia immigrants in Iran. This group has been used by the IRGC to counter the ISI designs against the interests of the Islamic Republic in the area and their extended face off in Afghanistan. Zaynabiyon fighters are also used in the strategic Syria-Iraq border- a necessary corridor link in these two countries in the overall strategy of the IRGC.

The US-Taliban Agreement signed on 29th February amidst this devastating proxy war propelled by IRGC and ISI appears least convincing of bringing any semblance of peace in the country. The Taliban office in Doha, the seat of talks between the US and the Taliban seem to suggest that Taliban has grown in autonomy from its early backers-Saudi Arabia, and ISI influence. Qatar and its growing proximity with the Islamic Republic seem to have helped clear the misunderstanding and mistrust between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The IRGC has stitched this alliance through its spreading networks in Afghanistan based on their common vision of political Islam and expulsion of the foreign occupiers from Afghanistan in particular and entire West Asia. Thus behind the scene, IRGC is sure to play considerable role in the ongoing intra-Afghan negotiations. The withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan can thus create a potential power vacuum and may lead to the increased influence of these proxy actors and IRGC as it happened when the US left Iraq in 201. 

The proxy wars of IRGC and ISI has compounded the Afghan conflict. Such policy pursuit in the garb of religious fervour and ideological competition by IRGC and ISI has pushed Afghanistan in an unending track of violence and turmoil. The history bears the fact that end-result of such proxy war games are always devastating for peace and security of the sponsor countries as well. At the moment it is bound to have a dangerous syndrome in Afghanistan, its spill over in the region of South Asia and West Asia. India has strong strategic interests in Afghanistan and Iran assumes paramount significance to realise those goals. Therefore, we must tread carefully in the wake of these proxy war games between the ISI of Pakistan and the IRGC of Iran in order to pursue our interests in Afghanistan and beyond. India must device and pursues a policy based on our pragmatic national interests for larger interest of global peace and security as a responsible democratic country.

An updated version of this article can be found here: Perils Of Proxy Wars In Afghanistan: A Comparative Study Of The ISI Of Pakistan And The IRGC Of Iran – Analysis

*Dr Khushnam P N, Independent IR and Regional Security Researcher & Analyst, Bengaluru, India

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