Twenty-five years ago the Soviet Army returned home after nine years of fighting in Afghanistan. After the soviet withdrawal, the country plunged into civil war, which resulted in the Taliban having captured power in Kabul in 1996. Created in the same year in opposition to the Taliban and its regional sponsors, the United Front was comprised of all Afghan ethnicities, including Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens. In 2014, NATO formally ended its eleven years of combat operations in Afghanistan with security responsibilities having been transferred to the Afghan authorities. Today, Afghanistan may become yet another buffer zone for convergence of Russian and Iranian interests in the region, especially since the U.S. current military contingent constitutes 9,800 soldiers and, according to the current U.S. leadership, is to be reduced to 5,500 in the early 2017. The ongoing military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran demonstrated in Syria, combined with the U.S.'s failed effort to coax the two into giving up their support for President Bashar Assad, may bolster Russia's president Vladimir Putin to establish a similar "interest club" in Afghanistan and there is little doubt that he would pass up this opportunity.
In recent years, Russia has been clearly focused on its nearby abroad, seeking a more assertive role in the former soviet states, including in Central Asia. Its primary concern in Afghanistan is to maintain security on the latter's borders with the Central Asian republics. It is a well-known fact that Al Qaeda had ties not only with the Taliban, but also within the region of Central Asia, particularly with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Interestingly, the organization was created with the idea to overthrow Uzbek President Islam Karimov but in 2015 its leadership pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). With this in mind, Mr. Putin would prefer to use the existing internal dynamics in Afghanistan under the pretext of fighting ISIL to facilitate political and military cooperation with Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, who are parties to the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Given the highly unfavorable security climate in the region and in the absence of the credible alternatives, the Central Asian states have little reason not to support Putin's endeavors.
Iran, in its turn, now liberated from economic pressure and external containment could well position itself as a reliable partner and security guarantor not only for Damascus, but also for a wider Islamic world. In 2013, the U.S. was forced to close its only regional air base in Manas, a critical outpost in Kyrgyzstan, which cost the American taxpayers 60 million dollars a year. Ninety-seven percent of American troops and other strategic resources that were going to Afghanistan passed through that base. Iran shares a 921 km border with Afghanistan and was a key player in the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, having tried to preserve its political and economic leverage on Kabul. Despite the attempts on behalf of some representatives of Kabul's ruling elites to eradicate Persian heritage, the country largely remains an inheritor of Persian civilization. About one-fifth of Afghanistan's population is Shi'ite with twenty percent of Afghans (mostly Tajiks and Shi'ite Hazaras) speaking a dialect of Persian. In April 2015, Afghanistan and Iran announced their intention to enhance security cooperation to combat threats posed by the ISIL.
The Central Asian republics, where Persian culture has maintained an influence of varying degrees in the past, have long remained skeptical of the Islamic Republic's ties to religious extremism, as well as the latter's alienation from the international community. However, diplomatic and economic exchanges are now slowly increasing between the states in the region and Iran, since the sanctions once imposed by the U.S., impeding the development of north-south transportation networks through Iranian territory, have been weakened. Given the successful Moscow-Tehran military cooperation in Syria and Iraq, Putin is likely to encourage the Islamic Republic to build its presence in Central Asia and the South Caucasus to further eliminate Western influence on Russia's periphery. This was clearly demonstrated last month, when the Russian Navy fired cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea towards Syria by crossing over the air space of both Iran and Iraq.